Colony of the Unfit
by MANFRED A. CARTER
Mars had become the prison planet for Earth’s
afflicted, for the Leaders had exiled them to
a living death beneath its red surface. But the
Leaders had erred in their cold-blooded
calculations—Mars held a secret beyond their ken.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
John Greely looked at Hilda’s freshly gloved, artificial hand, as she adjusted her note book to a clip concealed in the palm. The hand fascinated him horribly. Beauty should never be crippled. She sensed his morbid stare, but smiled and rose gracefully, saying, “O.K., Boss. Let’s go.”
She flashed bantering eyes at her editor, with a last pat of her heavily ringed right hand on the rich rolling waves of blonde hair that were always in place. The startling pale beauty of her young face was contrasted by glowing dark brown eyes. Theirs was a comfortable friendship, this of the young editor and his society staff and secretary, but a limited one. He said, gruffly, “Let me carry the raditype.”
“No, you’re the dignity, I’m the beast of burden. Come on, hurry! We’ve only five minutes to reach the district hospital.”
John slipped on his transparent all-weather coat and helped Hilda with hers. His reddish brown hair flipped in the March wind as they stepped out from the Daily Home Recorder building. His almost boyishly round cheeks glowed with color. Hilda liked the way his shoulders snapped up as he faced the cold. She liked the way he took her arm, but she must always be casual….
“Do you suppose it’s just another rumor?” she asked, as they stepped into a low, cigar shaped car.
“Look like straight dope to me. The Universal News Service is pretty conservative.”
“How could things have changed so while we were away? It doesn’t seem like the same world. Those men in Washington must be mad.”
“I know, Hilda, but perhaps we are the ones who are out of step. This is the day of directed evolution.”
“But, John—how horrible, to take all those sick folks and banish them on a Space Tramp!”
John drove past the old wooden houses of their small city and then let out speed on the highway before he answered, “The Leader says that is what we should do—harden our emotions for the sake of a better race. You and I are in the minority. Those years on the Moon trip have left us out of date.”
They were silent for a little while before she continued, “Do you suppose we really are in the minority? The people who listen in to our raditype service seem just about as they did before we went away. Their letters prove that. I saw an old lady’s scrap book the other day, of her clippings. I read it through because I had been wondering how much of the printed recording was ever reread. Most people are content to glance at the screen when the news first comes on. She had saved the old type sentimental items, just as an old lady would have five or ten years ago.”
“Yes, the small towns are slow to change. That’s why they hate the little news services like ours. Prepared news hastens the new day.”
“Do you suppose they’ll talk to us?”
“They’ll have to,” he said grimly, “with all those folks watching and listening in. I wonder what the patients think about the new idea—or if they know.”
“Where do you think they will be sent? Why don’t the authorities just put them to sleep with a lethal drug?”
“Search me, Honey. Well, here we are.”
Their street roller drew up silently before a huge gray building in the open country and John turned the magnetic parking control. They stepped out from the grass-lined curb, and John pushed the moving sidewalk half-speed handle, sliding them quickly up to an entrance. It opened automatically and in a moment they were standing before a large silver reception screen.
A white haired doctor, in his long surgical gown, glowed rapidly into focus before them. His eyes darted at John like the incision of a lancet. “What’s the press want this morning?”
“We’d like an interview on the Universe News story.”
Hilda held her raditype transmitter open toward the screen, secure in the crook of her arm, while she made private stenographic notes on the pad. Every home in the Brownville Section, which happened to be tuned in, was seeing the Doctor and he suddenly realized it enough to smile slightly. He inwardly cursed the freedom of the press in small towns, but remarked with forced graciousness, “I’ll have a nurse conduct you to the surgery. We can talk while I supervise some minor operations.”
They walked past the Mental Case Wards in silence. It had been fifty years since the most degenerate of these poor unfortunates had been allowed to vociferate their wild discords. Hypnosis and drugs had achieved permanent quiet at last, but there was still a low percentage of actual cures.
Beyond these wards they came to the surgical division, and presently sat with Dr. Henderson in a small circular screened room, where a dozen operations were simultaneously shown. He hardly glanced at them, but kept his eyes constantly on the moving screen before him, touching buttons occasionally before making some brief comment into the transmitter.
John ignored his seeming lack of attention. “What about this story that the Central Medical Division is moving all these patients out on a space ship?”
“Some wild rumor—nothing in it.”
“Any objection to our taking a round of observation?”
“No, go ahead. Might as well do it now. We can finish the interview later. I want to concentrate on that brain section transfer. It’s rather tricky.”
They stepped into an observation car and slid slowly around the overhead track, looking down on crowded wards below.
“John! There is something happening here. Look at the patients’ faces. They’re afraid.”
“Does seem to be a lot of activity.”
“Let’s slide down into that convalescent ward and see what they have to say.”
“O.K., Sister, but you know it is forbidden. We’ll probably get thrown out and reported.”
They had hardly stepped out of the slide when a group of white gowned orderlies came down the next corridor. Hilda saw them and whispered tensely. “Here! Sit in this wheel chair, and I’ll visit you—Help me fold our coats so that you can sit on them.”
John obeyed and lolled back in the chair, winking at her before he half closed his eyes.
The orderlies wheeled in a low carrier, piled high with transparent plastic overcoats, old fashioned sweaters, woolen mackinaws, and rubber raincoats—any sort of an outdated covering. Most of the patients in these district hospitals were poor, and largely living in the meager comforts of the early part of the century. They made no protest, but donned their variegated assortment of coverings and lined up obediently to march out.
“Let’s go with them,” Hilda whispered.
“Quick! Behind those screens and into the end of the line,” he directed, “the press joins the army of decrepitude.”
“John, there are hundreds of ambulance planes outside!”
“Got your transmitter on?”
“Yes, it’s been on all the time.”
A white faced man ahead of them began to struggle between two guards as they reached the open air. A male nurse, walking behind them, deftly thrust a large hypodermic into the patient’s arm, while the orderlies held him and pushed back his sleeve. The rebellious one quieted and was carried into one of the planes.
There were a few other struggles of resistance. Here and there a patient ran a few yards before being caught and subdued. For the most part the unhappy crowd showed only a quiet despairing obedience.
John urged in a low worried tone, “Let’s make a dash for our roller—this is no place for you.”
“No, this is horrible—we must see it through. Pretend to be sick and go along.”
“Don’t be sentimental, Hilda. Get ready to run for it when we pass that wall.” He took her right hand in his left and snapped off the raditype. “Now!”
She had no choice, but, as they ran around the corner of the wall, they crashed into a group of surgeons coming toward the planes.
“Hold them!” cried Dr. Henderson. “They’ve done damage enough already. Put them on a plane. Perhaps we can claim the first broadcast was an impersonation, if they are gone.”
John broke one pair of spectacles and started one nosebleed dripping down a doctor’s immaculate gown, but muscles haven’t much chance against the rigidity serum. He yielded to the hypodermic and did not come to during the brief ambulance ride, nor while they were being loaded onto the battered old Space Tramp. Hilda continued to scribble her antiquated shorthand surreptitiously on the pad, but they had appropriated her raditype. She was not given the rigidity serum until she was strapped onto a sleeping shelf in the ship. Only a small group of officers in the control room were conscious of the sudden inertia strain, when the rockets thundered out through earth’s atmosphere. All the patients were mercifully in the long sleep that would seem like a minute of time, when awakened after months of racing through silent outer space.
John felt the prick of the needle that awakened him to consciousness, through a vague haze of half forgetfulness. Suddenly he remembered, and tore feverishly at the straps holding him down. In a moment he was free from their restraint, but laughing in vexation at his forgetfulness when his exertions threw him upward, and he hung suspended in the cabin space dangling from the strap still held in his right hand. He had forgotten they had left gravity behind. He pulled himself down and seized the sleeping shelf with his left hand. Clinging to it, he sidled along toward the forward port. Patients, under their straps as he passed, were slowly coming back to life, and they stared at him frightened, or amused or indifferent, according to their conditions. The attendants had gone from the cabin. At last John could see through a six foot plate of hardened glass. The view was slightly hazy, and unreal. Below their plunging ship was the Red Planet, still a vague sphere. The orange glow, familiar to earth telescopes, was gone now. The vast stretches of red desert and darker marsh areas became faintly distinguishable. Those regular lines of water channels from the opposing polar caps became visible to the naked eye, and were far less geometrical than earth pictures had shown them. It was summer in the northern hemisphere, and its polar cap had receded.
The one previous expedition to this dying planet had been given little publicity and John was fascinated by the view before him. At last they entered the thin atmosphere. Instant by instant, the deserts and low rounded hills grew visible. Lines of vegetation along the water channels turned green. Finally, the forward jets of the ship roared and John was crashed against the rear cabin wall, by the change of speed. He crawled painfully back to his sleeping shelf and strapped himself in. The rumor was true—He was on a ship of doom—and Hilda—where was she? Had she escaped? There was nothing he could do. The ship screamed into thicker, lower atmosphere and vibrations penetrated her thick hull.
John’s memory of previous space trips told him they were nearly ready to land. There was hardly a jar, as they grounded and tilted slowly to rest. Sleepy eyed orderlies came in unsteadily, affected by the lighter gravity. They were pushing a truck full of helmets and oxygen tanks, which they deftly adjusted to the patients.
The men in this cabin were all able to walk and were soon outside the air lock. Following them came stretcher bearers, street roller ambulances, men on crutches, even a few of the more demented in glassite water jackets, from which they peered with dull eyes, as if they were drugged.
Hilda burst free from the second group of women and cried, “John! Oh, John, I’m so glad to find you.”
She threw her arms around him and pillowed her head on his shoulder. He held her happily, his blood racing. This was a different girl from the hard and casual newspaper woman. Suddenly, she recovered.
“Sorry. Guess I have the old time jitters—I’ll try not to let it happen again.” She covered her gloved left hand with her right and turned away. “See what a hopeless pitiful mob,” she said, after a moment.
“Yes, and I wonder what next. I’ve read that most of the old dwelling places are underground. The Martians made their last stand against desolation in cave cities.”
“There’s an entrance.”
“Yes, and here come the guards.”
The long procession of the lame, the blind, and the sick was soon in weaving motion over red sand toward a great metal door set into a low cliff. Their oxygen helmets bobbed almost comically. There were few guards and these made little attempt at restraint. John and Hilda went hand in hand toward a group in the lead, the seemingly able bodied ones.
“I suppose most of these are alcoholics and drug addicts,” John remarked, absently, as they followed.
“Maybe this will really cure them. They certainly can’t escape or bribe their way to intoxication here.”
“What’s the use of getting cured on this desert?”
“Don’t give up, John. Oh, you’re thinking that there will be no more Elks Club balls!” She took his arm and smiled derisively.
“And all the Susies, and Mabels, and Evelyns were left behind—Too bad!”
“Aw—cut it—We’ve got to figure out something—”
The guards were not unkind, but herded them like cattle, impersonally and silently. The great steel door clanged, and they were able to remove their helmets in the air conditioned interior.
This strange crowd of the banished drew together in a vast open cave, dimly lighted by weak electric globes. In the distance they could hear the throbbing of an old fashioned generator. Dr. Henderson stood on an overturned packing case with one of the primitive sound amplifiers set up before him. He spoke calmly now, more at ease than at home, as if relieved.
“Men and women,” he began, “we are not here to harm you. This great experiment is being conducted in the interests of humanity. The constant presence of the sick is disturbing to eugenic controls and ideals. The Leader and the Earth Council have wisely established this colony. You will still be treated by the best of our skill. Any who recover will be placed in an isolated and independent colony. The slightly crippled will be given handicraft and factory tasks. Their products will be shipped to Earth and sold to maintain the supply line.”
“Where do we live?” blurted a portly, middle aged man near John.
“There are separated quarters a few miles down the passage—Of course rather primitive—but you can make yourselves fairly comfortable.”
Hilda noticed one of the nurses standing near the Doctor. Her tightly waved blonde hair was gleaming in the dim light near the speaker’s improvised platform. Her large blue eyes were slightly closed and her full red lips sagged almost hopelessly, but she was strikingly beautiful, with strong, clean cut features and a clear skin.
Beyond were other nurses and doctors in white uniforms, scattered like lonely ghosts among the five hundred and more patients. Hilda wondered what had induced these people to voluntarily leave the comforts of civilization. Were they derelicts of time, idealists, or just out of work?
“There is one difference in this colony,” went on Dr. Henderson in a lower tone. “If any of you find it too difficult to exist under the new conditions, euthanasia will be permitted—a sleeping pill in the white room—and your troubles are over.”
“Yeah—and the state saves money!” snarled the white faced man who had rebelled at the hospital entrance before them.
“It will be purely voluntary,” said Dr. Henderson calmly.
“Oh, I’ll bet they’ll use hypnotics!” whispered Hilda, in a shocked voice, “They’ll make them want to—What a twisted code of ethics. They don’t dare to face their own attitudes. Such hypocrisy! Why not just line us up and use the ray guns?”
Doctor Henderson ended his address with additional promises and then stepped down. In a few minutes the crowd was broken up into small units. John and Hilda walked with the group of alcoholics and arrested mental cases. They began to talk and sought acquaintanceship to cancel fear. It was almost a relief to leave the congregation of pain behind them.
There was only one doctor with this group, Old Doctor Smithson, a retired psychiatrist who had begun working at the district hospital after losing his fortune in the stock market. He was now too old for general practice. His thin, bent shoulders straightened as he walked. His words became crisp and cheerful as if he welcomed the adventure. With him were two nurses, Mary, the blonde girl Hilda had noticed, and a little, red headed, freckled faced woman of indeterminate years.
Near Hilda and John walked Major Henry Mattson, a psychiatric casualty of the war of 1960, seemingly cured. The rebellious one, twice noticed by the reporters before, walked ahead. He said his name was Tony Pacina. A tall, white haired man with thick glasses, recently cured of a cataract, introduced himself as Mark Hemingway and said that he was a chemist and had been in the surgery at the hospital for his operation because of confidence in Dr. Henderson. If this should prove true his accidental presence might be helpful.
Around them were the others they would seek to know later. The group tramped briskly behind Dr. Smithson. They were the “cured” ones. With health, happiness is possible anywhere. They felt themselves beginning a strange comradeship, even cheerfulness.
“I wonder where they’re taking us,” said Hilda, clinging to John’s arm to keep up with the brisk pace, and laughing at the way a little jump could lift her up and far ahead.
“I wonder, too. Well, Honey, if I must be cast away—I’m glad it’s with you.”
She squeezed his arm, but said nothing. There was light ahead at the end of the long tunnel. They entered a large open chamber.
It was not a luxurious room, but neither was it a prison. There was sufficient heat, and the mattresses and sheets were clean. There were two shower and bath rooms beyond but no ultra violet equipment. Cloth curtains were hung to drop around their beds. One side of the room was lined half way to the ceiling with frayed and battered books. One wall had a moving picture screen. There was no television. One noted the absence of buttons to push and gadgets for speed and comfort. There were no sliding floors.
“Our legs will ache with all the walking in this city,” said Hilda, rather doubtfully.
“I’ll like that. I’d enjoy developing a little muscle again.”
“I wonder where those passages go. Do you suppose they’ll permit us to go out?”
As they stepped to the door, Mary came forward and gave them each a folded paper map, and a double holster holding a radilight and a gas pellet gun. Hilda buckled hers on, laughing at its weight. John stared at his thoughtfully.
“No real danger here,” said the blonde nurse, “but our instruction manuals say there are Mars rats—something like the jack rabbits on western sage plains back home. They run around the cave area. Nothing larger has been left in the passages. They aren’t very good to eat, so we just gas them and leave them to recover. Dr. Henderson wants a reserve food supply in case of emergency. They are about twice the size of rabbits back home, and their bite is infectious. If you go beyond any of the air doors, you may need oxygen helmets, the atmosphere is pretty thin. It will take you a bit of time to get used to the lighter gravity, but that’s sort of fun.” She said it all with professional cheeriness, as if it were memorized, but she paid very little attention to them.
“Want to come along?” asked John.
“Sorry. I have to stay here to help Dr. Smithson. I’d like to—maybe another time. We are both on duty today.” She smiled, and the settled sadness of her face was gone for a moment.
“Well, thanks,” said John, unfolding his map slowly.
“Oh, yes,” she added, “and never go beyond sight of the entrance if you go out on the desert. You can see for miles even though the horizon is nearer up here. If danger comes you can make it back to the door easily. But there are very unpleasant things on this planet. The safety is all underground. Maybe you’d better have one of the manuals. It will be light outside and you can read.” She took a thin booklet from the bundle of papers in her hand and gave it to Hilda, then walked briskly away.
They pushed open the room door, and stepped cautiously down a dry, dark passageway. Old marks of ray blast on the sandstone walls showed that all this underground world was artificial. Red desert sand underfoot was hard, dry and clean.
“Oh, John, it does seem good to be by ourselves again. All these sick folks depress me.”
“Yes, and what depresses me is how I’m going to get you back to Earth. It may be months before another ship comes. And they won’t dare to let us go back and tell, until the experiment is well established.” He folded the map carefully.
“Think of all the hundreds of families back home who must be frantic.”
John’s voice was savage as he answered, “I found out a bit about that from the Major. It seems that every family got a printed letter, telling about the new colony and claiming it was mostly for the good of the patients. And there is a systematic health propaganda planned to follow that up, conditioning the minds of their relatives to the undertaking in all its implications. I believe the patients are even allowed to write letters—censored, of course, and delivered once in two years. You know there is no radio contact.”
They walked on, in understanding silence, until she took his arm and indicated a great copper door. “Look, John, on the map it says that door 101 is an outside entrance. Let’s go and see.”
They adjusted helmets and manipulated the manual locks of the double doors, with some experiment. John finally convinced himself that he could re-enter without difficulty. Then the two Earth people stepped out into a weird atmosphere under a strangely small sun. The sky was dark blue, tending toward black. Stars glittered, though it was still day. Their helmets provided a mixture of oxygen with the planet’s natural atmosphere.
“It’s like a dream, John.”
The hills were old and worn out but there were no trees. Deep shadows folded into the distance in the cold slanting sunlight, tracing sandy curves with velvet-like smoothness.
John answered her thought, “Those vivid colors and deceptive distances remind me of my boyhood in Idaho. I’ll bet there’s the same difference between light and shade, too. Let’s step into the shadow of that rock and see if it isn’t suddenly much cooler.”
He led her to a pyramid-like rock projecting about twenty feet out of the sand, and casting a shadow toward them.
Hilda exclaimed, “Yes, it is colder. Why?”
“The thin air always diffuses heat less than moist heavy air near the sea, and at a lower altitude. I’ll bet on a cold day you could get frozen out of the sunlight before you realized.”
“And there are no clouds. What a strange dark sky!”
“I’ve read that there are often yellowish clouds of dust but it is only at night, when the cold comes with sunset, that moisture clouds are formed. Nights are too cold for human existence without special protection.”
She shivered. “I’d get to hate that sky after a time. It is pitiless.”
“You certainly would if you were lost on this desert.”
“Let’s rest a bit, John, and see what the manual has to say.”
“Fine! We can lean our backs against this rock.”
“We’d better get on the sunny side of it.”
They walked around the rock, and slid down to the hard sand. Faint twists of sand curled around the sides of the rock but they were sheltered from the wind, and out of sight of the entrance, as if in a world of their own.
She rested her head on his shoulder contentedly as he turned the old, crudely typeset pages of the manual. There were pen and ink illustrations of strange beasts, but no chapters on inhabitants.
“We’re the only people here—” said Hilda, in an awed tone.
“Regular Adam and Eve picnic, with clothes on.”
“I’d hate to be without clothes on this desert. No garden here.”
“That’s right. No place for a nudist colony on Mars.”
She sat up suddenly, looking past the rock at a distant shadow. Her face grew pale, and she whispered fearfully, “Look, John! There’s something moving over by those rocks.”
He leaped to his feet. “Yes—and it’s a Mars Coyote. I noticed a picture on page three. Harmless, I guess, but we’d better get back. It’s close. We should have been watching.”
They rose hastily and walked around the boulder, back toward the entrance. Hilda started and stifled a scream as they left the shelter. John drew his clumsy gas gun and stepped in front of her. Before them, on the red stretch of sand toward the entrance, were hundreds of the reddish-gray, smooth haired animals, with pointed noses and wickedly gleaming eyes.
These moved back silently as the two humans approached, but only a little way.
“The book says they’re cowardly,” she gasped, “but there are so many!”
“Too damned many—I wonder if I ought to shoot one, to keep the others away.”
The red-gray circle bent away from them slowly, as they walked steadily across the weirdly shadowed sand toward the gleaming metal door, so far ahead. The animals massed thickly before them, and were finally crowded up against the cliff and its door. They slid out sidewise but tumbled into each other. One made a dash forward, but John dropped it with the little gas pellet that broke against its hide, with a sinking yellow cloud of gas. There was also an injection of paralysis fluid from the plastic point of the pellet. The little gun made no noise as it was operated by a spring. John levered another pellet into the firing tube. After the yellow gas had blown away in the strong wind, the red-gray bodies crept toward their fallen comrade and suddenly rushed in, with a horrible clicking of teeth and fierce, silent ripping of flesh.
“Oh—” cried Hilda—”and it’s still alive. They’re eating it alive!”
“Not much difference,” grunted John as he aimed and fired rapidly at three more. Then he led her around the circle of rolling, crowding bodies. One coyote at the edge of the circle howled dismally. There were still a dozen or more between them and the door.
John tried a new trick. He shot one of the beasts and ran quickly forward with his radilight in the cliff’s shadow, frightening the others back. Then, while Hilda held her gun ready, he quickly scooped up the fallen coyote by its bushy tail and whirled it round his head to heave it far out over the milling mass of hungry bodies. Each hairy carcass felt unbelievably light to him, and he could cast them thirty feet away. When most of the coyotes were facing the living food away from the door John dragged her toward the great copper portal, shooting as they ran.
The lighter gravity had made the work fairly easy, but even so, he was sweating and his hands trembled as he seized the last one and tossed it into the air. Hilda was fumbling with the door.
“Let me do it!” he gasped, “I remember—”
The shot exploded in a burst of light.
Just then a shadow fell over them, and they were so startled as to look up from the door and step back. About fifty feet in the air hovered a small, almost spherical air boat, with no visible means of suspension or power. A port slid open on its under side and a square black muzzle pointed at them. Hilda seized John’s arm in terror, as they felt themselves lifted by invisible force from the ground, above the great pack of startled coyotes. John noticed that the beasts were looking up and many of them yelping as they ran into the rubble of rocks beyond the cliff. There wasn’t time to see how many fled, for he and Hilda were quickly sucked up into the open port by invisible tractor rays, the metal hull clanged shut, and they were thrown roughly on a hard floor. John had a blurred vision of a circle of white, long-bearded faces, on slender bodied old men, before a gleaming mirror-like reflector dazzled him and he felt his hold on reality slipping. He struggled to his feet and reached for one of the old men, managing to seize a tangled silky beard before he fell forward into darkness.
They came to consciousness lying on soft low mattresses in a room softly illuminated with blue light. The air was slightly overwarm and humid but comfortable. They were dressed in skin fitting, silvery garments, partly transparent with skirts of blue, velvety cloth. Their hair was wrapped in transparent turbans.
Hilda recovered enough to blush uncomfortably and curl back on the couch. “I feel as if—I were wrapped in cellophane,” she faltered.
“You’re swell,” gulped John gallantly, “an improvement in fact. I suppose they had to fumigate our own clothes or something. This superheated air suggests that our captors are old and delicate.”
“The cellophane idea makes me wonder if we’re wrapped up like rolls, or something, from the baker for—dinner.”
“Meaning cannibalism? This kind of a room was never made by primitives, Honey.”
“That’s right—It’s like a dream place.” She rose up on her elbow again to look around.
There were no windows. It was utterly bare of ornament. John walked slowly around the circle of their walls. The only door opened to a tiny bath cubicle. Blue light, reflected upward from the juncture of floor and wall, cast no shadow, indicating its perfect diffusion. He paused with an exclamation.
“What is it, John?”
“Here’s some kind of a control button, with symbols carved over it. Their language perhaps. I wonder what it’s for.”
“Better leave it alone—I’d sort of like to catch up with myself—”
But, at that moment, the button clicked in of its own accord—and one side of the wall glowed with rose colored light. A large screen showed an old man half reclining on a purple couch, dressed in a white, silver trimmed robe. He was smiling at them as he turned away from some recording device into which he spoke. His face was incredibly old, and wrinkled in a fine network of lines. His skin, strangely, seemed of some soft, young texture. The bones of his cheeks were prominent, and his hands were delicately pink white. He moved gracefully, and in leisurely fashion, from the couch to a small black box at the side of the room, and pressed a button. On a small screen in the old man’s room, visible on their own wall, began to flash words in red script.
“Say! That’s in German,” cried John. “I don’t read German, but I know the script.”
“And that looks like Chinese—”
In red square blocked letters on the little screen were the words in English, “WE MEAN YOU NO HARM.”
The old man observed their excitement, and stopped the flow of the screen so that the message steadied. Then, under that sentence, appeared another “BE PATIENT WE MUST FINISH TRANSCRIBING YOUR LANGUAGE. IT WILL TAKE A FEW MORE TIME. EAT—SLEEP—REST.”
The screen on their room faded out. The old man’s face was gone. And through a slit near the floor of their room slid a tray of food, moved by some invisible force on small rollers, over toward the mattress where Hilda was still sitting.
“Oh Boy—food! And could I use some—”
“Wait until you’re properly served, Mister.”
She spread out the pale yellow cloth on the floor and arranged the food in orderly fashion. It was moulded into various patterns and colors, and was firm enough to eat with their fingers, which was fortunate as there were no eating utensils. They both ate hungrily and were nearly finished when soft music came into the air from some invisible source. It was hauntingly mingled in composition, but all vaguely familiar, drifting from the limited scale of the Orient to waltzes and furious Russian symphonies. The hill billy band that finally played seemed oddly out of harmony and yet aroused a nostalgia for home in their hearts.
“I feel like a nap—” said Hilda, yawning.
“So do I—wonder if there was a drug—in—that—milk.”
It seemed only a moment to John that he had been sleeping, but his muscles were rested, his weariness was gone, and he felt invigorated. He looked for his watch, but it was not there. In fact there were no pockets. Then he remembered!
Hilda was splashing around in the bath cubicle, and singing.
“Hello, Sleepy!” she said, emerging and adjusting a strap in the strange silvery clothing.
“So—it wasn’t a dream—”
“No, and hurry up with your bath. Your head is tousled. Maybe they’ll feed us again. I don’t want to eat opposite that mop.”
“Yes, dear—” he said, attempting scorn, but only achieving a new tenderness.
She looked down, and instinctively dropped her crippled arm behind her back. The glove was no longer fresh, but stained from the desert, though wrinkled where she had tried to launder it. Under the transparency of her sleeve the ugly stump of her arm revealed itself discordantly. With a forced gaiety, she crossed the room and pretended to hunt for their breakfast. But it didn’t come.
“Maybe they don’t know our eating habits,” remarked John glumly, as he plastered his unruly locks with his hands. “Wish I had a comb.”
At last the slide opened in the wall and a tray came in, but on it, instead of food, was a book. Hilda seized it eagerly, crying, “It’s a lexicon. See, here are the English words, and the signs for their language. The ink still smells fresh. They must have just printed it.”
“What’s the sign for ham and eggs?”
“Maybe we’d better try just ‘food’—can’t be too particular.”
“What’ll we write with?”
“Here’s a kind of pencil, but no lead on it.”
“Look, Hilda, there’s a new white spot on the wall. Let me have that pencil thing.” A blue line followed his tracing, and it glowed with a faint edging of fire.
“Some kind of a transfer current I suppose. Well, here goes—Let me see that food character.”
“Here it is—just a round circle, with three dots at the side.”
“Fine, Sister, here’s hoping the dots mean eggs and that you get one of them.”
There were no eggs, but the little round cakes, appearing a moment later, proved delicious. A warm liquid in the crystal cups was almost a substitute for coffee. In fact, it proved much more stimulating.
After breakfast, John boldly pressed the visi-screen control. This time, instead of one old man, they faced a group of them around a green table, covered with lexicons, other books, and charts.
They recognized the spokesman who stepped forward into a close up perspective and began the conversation. “I hope you will forgive our seeming—” he paused. “Aloofness,” supplied one of the other men, after hastily examining a lexicon. “That’s right, our aloofness, but we are products of an artificial world. Your primitive contagion would be dangerous for us.
“I am also sorry,” he went on, “that the conversation must be one direction until you learn more of our language, and we can pronounce more finely and hear. We have had difficulty even in assembling visual information about you. There was a collection of Earth photographs which we have magnified so that we could read your street signs. And the first expedition left a few scraps of paper. We had never considered it worth learning your way of speech before.”
He paused, as if this part of the address had been memorized. Then he continued slowly, with hesitations and stumbling pronunciation. “We are trying to vocalize your words from those we have heard you speak—but our ears are poor—I mean inadequate.” The other old men rustled charts and books and nodded at his correction. The address went on with more pauses and confirmations. Occasionally John had to write “repeat” on the wall chart. The Martians spoke with a strange sibilant hiss, and accents followed a different system, changing even common words enough to make it difficult to understand. In general, this was their explanation….
“Our scientists discovered your world several thousands years ago, but as it was a more primitive one, progressing slowly, they could not see any advantage in making contact. The one danger to us here, a lack of water, could not be remedied by travel to the Blue Planet. Instead, our wise ones devoted themselves to developing an underground civilization, free from the extremes of temperature on our planet. Atomic energy had given us all the heat and power we needed, and in a short time we were able to devote our energies to aesthetics, as soon as the physical necessities were satisfied.”
“Each year the flooding polar caps supply us with natural vegetation along the water channels and in the marshes. These plants are harvested and chemically treated for efficiency of use. When the last moisture fails, the remnant of our people must migrate, but that will not be for several of our generations. It may surprise you to know that each of us is over two hundred years old, that is of your years. Our younger men spend fifty years in attaining an education, under very sheltered conditions. We do not wish to disturb them by curiosity about you—at least not for the present. Our women live a very specialized existence, as the birth rate is low, and it takes nearly all of their energy to protect young life and to keep our population from diminishing too rapidly.”
John thumbed feverishly through the little book until he found the word for “space ship” then another for “Earth—” He puzzled for other words and wrote, “many years—last—not see—” It was incoherent but these old men had an uncanny way of guessing context of meaning.
“You mean, why did previous expeditions not find us? We took care of that, since we knew, long before they started, that they were coming. Much of the life on your world is transmitted to us by devices your mind have not yet dreamed. When the ships came we covered—no, camouflaged—our entrances. We were not discovered. You two have been brought here for a medical reason—”
John wrote, “question.”
“Yes, we want to know about your woman companion’s arm, and about the others in the cave—what has happened on earth—?”
The old man’s face peered, suddenly eager, closer up to the screen. His eyes watered, and the calm manner was gone. His thin fingers tapped a lexicon nervously.
Hilda pointed to words in her lexicon and John wrote, “cripple—colony.”
The old scientist grew pale and he staggered a bit as he turned to the others. Their white beards bent in an almost comical cluster over the little green table and bobbed excitedly. Their hissing syllables were shrill. Suddenly the screen blanked out.
“Well, what do you know about that?”
“John, do you remember what they said about ‘primitive contagion’?”
“Yes, I get it—You mean they are afraid.”
“Of many things—other colonies to follow this—their eventual discovery—diseases! Perhaps it is partly that we cripples offend their sense of beauty—”
“Forget it, Kid, you’ve got more pep in one hand than any girl I ever knew had in two.”
She smiled at him gratefully, before she turned away, and then her voice was still gay—”That isn’t what you say to all the girls—Well, what next?”
John stood with his feet apart as if alert to danger. He combed his fingers through the already tousled mop of reddish brown hair. After a moment of silence, he said, “Do you suppose that will make a difference in their attitude toward us?”
“Perhaps not—after all, most of the trouble came with the ship. They are not angry with us—We’ll just have to wait and see.”
It wasn’t a long wait. A larger opening in the wall allowed the sliding entrance of a small glass-like dome, containing their Earth clothes and oxygen helmets on a low bench inside.
The old scientist who had been talking to them before, appeared again on the screen. He ordered, impersonally, “Dress yourselves, lift the cover, and then strap yourselves to the seat inside. We are going to take you for a trip. The dome is to protect us from you.”
“Isn’t much else to do, is there?” said John hopelessly.
“Let’s assume they are friendly, until they prove otherwise.”
Their tiny glass cage slid away down a dimly lighted corridor, with no visible means of power, and clicked into place in the cabin of the same round aircraft that had captured them. Several of the old men were seated in padded and swinging chairs which moved rhythmically at moments of unsteadiness. They, too, were strapped in place, as if ready for any violent action of the ship, and the arc of each swaying chair was limited.
In an hour they were hovering over the desert area again. Heavy sunset clouds were rich in coloring. The desert sands were whirling into a gathering dusk and the whole sky was overcast. The speed slowed, and John recognized the familiar rock and cliff entrance where they had been captured. At last their small ship settled down on the sand and the little cage slid out gently on the hard sand.
“Maybe they’re just going to let us go, John.”
“I hope not—I want to know more about them.”
A crackling and distorted voice spoke electrically in their ears, “Please get out and walk quietly toward the entrance. We mean you no harm. Your friends are coming—”
“Well, that’s that!” John rolled back the cover and straddled over the edge, turning to help Hilda follow him.
They gasped as the intense cold of sunset struck through their thin clothing. Then they turned and ran toward the metal door, leaning into the wind and sheltering their hands from the blowing sand. The door slid open and Doctor Smithson came running toward them with fur coats in his arms. Behind him walked Mary, the nurse, bundled up and smiling. Even more slowly, old Jake Adams hobbled on crutches. Doctor Smithson cast uneasy glances at the strange airship, but came steadily toward them. Just as he was helping John into a coat, the lower port of the Mars ship opened and that square black projection came thrusting through. John saw it and cried, disgustedly, “Don’t be afraid. This won’t hurt—We’re going for a ride upstairs!…”
His last words were spoken from a distance of ten feet above ground…. In a few minutes, the five of them were crowded into that little glass cage, and sat staring at the old men in resentment. Jake had lost his crutches and lay, in a ridiculous posture, on the floor, his two wooden pegs spread out at a wide angle. He scowled truculently at the old men.
It was warm in the round Mars ship and cage. In a few minutes, they were sailing into rapidly falling darkness. John lost all sense of direction. At last, blue lights flashed in the cold night above a dim floor of thick plant life, and their little ship slid sidewise to a stop inside a massive hillside door. They could not understand why Jake was rayed into unconsciousness and taken away, before they were sent sliding and unattended down the long corridor to their former room. There were now four of the low beds and a fresh tray of food had been prepared. They ate, and fell into drugged sleep.
Life went on quietly, back in this observation cage, nearly a week. Every morning they were questioned for an hour or more by the council of scientists through the wall screen. Hilda persuaded John to be as co-operative as possible, hoping that the old men’s intentions were still kind. The questions were especially centered about details of health on earth, medicine, eugenic control, the number of sick people, and about the possibility of future colonies.
Mary and Dr. Smithson proved fascinating companions in the long idle hours, with a dramatic story to tell of their recent trip to Venus. Earth’s first expedition to that world in 1978 had not yet been reported in the public press.
It was on the sixth day that they saw Jake Adams again. He came sliding in on a rolling stretcher, propelled by unseen forces, and his eyes were closed.
Mary gasped, “Look at his legs!”
John stepped quickly to the stretcher and ran his hands over Jake’s body, then stood and cried. “They’re warm—and alive!”
During their brief wait in the cave they had seen the old soldier stumping around on two wooden legs, supplemented by crutches. He was spry and cheerful for a man nearly seventy years old, and his hands and arms were abnormally strong. Hilda had been indignant that the army should neglect this old hero and fail to provide him with suitable artificial limbs. Her own handicap made her feel a special sympathy, and she had stopped to talk with the old fellow briefly. He told her that he had been wounded in the battle against the Japs in the Marshall Islands during 1944.
Now the old soldier lay, with a slightly flushed face, breathing quietly, and in place of the wooden pegs were two perfectly formed legs wrapped in silvery transparent leggings!
As they watched, the old man slowly awakened, but lay still as if dazed. Then an expression of alarm or amazement began to open his eyes. He moved his toes, and then lay back muttering, “No, it’s just another of them nerve tricks—the way I used to feel about the weather!” But he slowly raised his head, as if fascinated. When his eyes focused on the new feet, he snapped suddenly to a sitting position and reached for his ankles.
“I can feel! I can feel—They’re alive!” he screamed.
Then he saw John bending over him, and the others in the background. “How did you do it—What’s happened—Am I dreaming?”
“No, old chap, it’s real enough, but the old ones must have done it for you.”
A high, thin voice interrupted—”We’re glad you are pleased.”
They whirled toward the wall screen. Old Senegar faced them from his purple couch, leaning wearily on an elbow—”It was quite a bit of trouble, but interesting.”
John fumbled through his lexicon and found the word for “how?” and scribbled it on the white wall plate.
“We thought you would want to know—Sit down, it will take a few minutes. I will try to be elementary in my discussion.”
They squatted in a half circle on the floor, all except Jake—who refused to sit, and teetered around feeling the muscles of his new legs, jumping, stretching, rocking on his toes, but listening all the while.
“To us, it is relatively simple,” went on the old man. “First we stimulate the bone cells to grow down a plastic hollow tube. This is done by depositing a calcium compound in the tube and focusing a ray of complex force upon it. Of course, the tube is made to order in relationship to measurements of the patient’s other bones. Artificial veins and arteries are introduced. We do not bother with all the tiny capillaries. They will grow in later. Synthetic cell tissue is moulded into the shape of muscles and stimulated with pinealin, which we have at last isolated. Strangely, one of the most difficult techniques is that of skin grafting. We grow skin on a hairless type of laboratory animal and patch it on with grafting glue. The healing is hastened by a special ultra violet and electrodynamic apparatus. Of course, the artificial arteries are connected when installed. Their wall composition allows blood to flow out into the cell tissue in about two days. With the arteries is laid down a series of main nerve sheaths. We do not try to restore all the original sensitivity, because the procedure is too complex. We find that a clumsy subsidiary nervous tentacle is developed, under high pressure electric nerve currents introduced briefly through the central nervous system before the lower frequency body current is allowed its own way. His legs will never be quite as effective as the original pair but do well enough, and only a doctor could detect the difference.”
Hilda stepped forward and wrote on the white square the words she had been finding in her lexicon. “Your kindness is almost beyond our understanding. I knew you were good people. We wish we could do something in return.”
Senegar rolled his spare body off the couch and his high voice was almost senile in his excitement—”You can, my dear—you can!”
“Anything—we will do anything,” she answered.
“It will be rather unpleasant for you at first.”
“What do you want?” added John standing at Hilda’s side.
“Sit down, sit down! I will tell you.”
The group of Earth people relaxed but with upturned faces, held fascinated by the old one’s earnestness. John’s hands were clasped tightly around his knees. Doctor Smithson kept hitching his lean frame forward. The old man’s voice was low as he went on.
“This is the trouble, my children, your people are a menace to us. All this ugliness would be bad enough, but the danger of infection is terrible. Our wise ones are fragile beings. We restore the flesh when there is injury or sickness, but we always lose a little of the original vitality. We cannot be killed, but we slowly wear out and must be protected. Our young ones are too few to risk contact with you. Thus we are forced to the logical conclusion that the Earth colony of sick ones must be destroyed and the next ship discouraged from returning.”
“No!—No, that’s inhuman!” gasped Mary.
“Nothing will happen to you five—We wish to retain you for medical and breeding purposes. But the others must go. Come, now, why should you care about them? You admitted they are all strangers to you. Think of the joy of living several hundred years.”
“But those sick ones—they are human!” cried Hilda to John, weeping. “They must find some other way—How could they do such a thing, when they have just shown us such kindness?”
“Self protection, my dear,” murmured the old man, reading her face and catching some of the words. “Self preservation and security for the qualitatively higher civilization of Mars. Let men from the Blue Planet continue to settle here, and in a hundred years we will be extinct. The Universe needs our wisdom. Those primitives must die, as you would kill your pet animals in a famine, or send sons to fight in one of your mad wars.”
“You can have your—I mean my legs back,” growled Jake, “gimme my pegs again.” His pantomime may have been understood. Senegar smiled, faintly.
“Think it over carefully. Do not let your simple emotions confuse you. I will see you again tomorrow. We need your help.”
The screen faded slowly into a blur, and in a moment they were alone in the plain, blue lighted room—five human beings, terror stricken in a place of comfort.
“My head aches,” grunted Jake, “that machine they used on me first left a sore spot.”
“What kind of a machine was it?”
“I dunno—some kind of a thing. They kept asking me questions and wrote down the answers even before I spoke—That was funny! And sometimes when I lied to them—about some of the things I did, on shore leave and so on, they laughed. It was almost like they partly read my mind.”
“Perhaps they did,” remarked Doctor Smithson, who had been very quiet during all the excitement. His eyes gleamed with an almost impersonal interest. “Our psychoanalysis is very clumsy. I have always wished there were some kind of mechanical means of intuitively reaching to the under experiences of the subconscious.” Suddenly he got to his feet from the low mattress bed where he had been sitting alone since the stunning proposal. He began to pace the floor, clasping and unclasping his thin arms. “I wonder—” He seemed to have forgotten their presence, “I wonder if they can stimulate brain tissue with pinealin. I’ll wager half of those mental cases back underground could be cured by these men in a week! If I could only persuade them to talk to me.”
“Look who’s here,” remarked Jake quietly, as if nothing in this strange room could surprise him.
A slight young man, with brown hair and keen blue eyes, stood in a flowing white robe marked by silver trimmings and a red diagonal stripe running from his shoulder to the floor. There was no sign of a door where he had entered.
“I heard what you said, Doctor Smithson, or at least part of it,” he remarked quietly in a soft musical voice. “I am Zingar. Some of us younger ones think the old men are too fearful—I wish I could go back to Earth with you and assist your struggling medical men.”
John paged through the book hurriedly, hunting for words.
“Just a moment,” interrupted the young stranger. He stepped to the wall and tapped a code sign. At his feet a slit opened and a dark gray, complicated machine slid into the room.
“That’s one of them things they hitched to my head,” said Jake excitedly.
Zingar drew out a cord from the gray machine, with a small black disk at the end, and laid it against the side of John’s head, where it remained as if glued.
“Now think what you wish to say, and I will know the essence of your meaning,” remarked Zingar. “It will not convey words or technical matter but blurred pictures of experience. I will ask questions to guide your memory. And if you will think aloud it may help as I already have memorized much of your spoken language.”
John tried to think coherently, but, under his conscious sentences when he spoke aloud was a flickering jumble of excitement, ideas for escape, thoughts of Hilda as he looked at her, memories of their recent conversations with Senegar.
“Relax, young man,” ordered the Martian youth, “I find it difficult to receive. This device only registers your subvocal thoughts. Your mind is like a kaleidoscope at present. Try not to think of the young lady.”
Hilda drew in her breath quickly and blushed.
John’s face was red from his neck to his hair. “Young man, yourself,” he blurted, “how old do you think I am?”
“Young in comparison to me. I am seventy five. Now think of what your hospital was like back on earth.”
John steadied his mind and visualized the events of their last day on Earth.
“There—that’s better,” said Zingar quietly. “If this could have registered technical matter the old ones wouldn’t have to bother to learn your language.” He shifted the black disk to Doctor Smithson’s bony forehead.
“If you believe we should be helped, why not let us escape—even go with us,” urged John.
“I have thought of it,” he replied calmly.
Mary came up to him quickly—”Oh, please do. I know you are good—I love those sick people back there underground. There are a few who think only of their sickness but most of them are really much finer than selfish normal people. Their handicaps have made them strong and kind. They can even laugh at pain.”
Zingar abruptly removed the disk from Doctor Smithson, to the latter’s disgust, and placed it gently on Mary’s golden waves. “Please repeat—remember we cannot understand your words very clearly, but we can receive your picture thoughts. I heard part of what you said.”
Mary repeated her plea, but she also blushed, as if the sudden nakedness of her secret mind before him was embarrassing. He smiled appreciatively and they withdrew to one of the low mattresses and sat together for an hour or more, apart from the others. They seemed to forget the present world entirely, but Zingar’s questions were too low for John to hear, and he was still curious at the story back of Mary’s quiet sadness. Hilda thought, why they can get as much acquainted in an hour as we do ordinarily in years. I never have really known what John thought about my hand…. Both of them glanced at Mary occasionally and it seemed, after a long time, that some of the strain passed from her face and a strange quiet happiness flowed over it. Finally they arose and came to the center of the room, where their companions were still talking excitedly.
“I will do it—tonight,” said Zingar with dignity. “I will go with you, and be one of you—even back to the Earth. But first I must prepare and I want to bring my twin sister with me. We are inseparable.”
He walked to the blank wall of the room and again tapped rhythmically on it until a low doorway opened. He stooped and disappeared. John immediately tried to repeat the tapping combination, but the wall remained as solid as if it were stone.
In the quiet room there was little sense of time. Food came in to them automatically after an hour or so. They were too excited to think of sleep.
At last the wall opening appeared again and Zingar returned, leading a beautiful, brown-haired girl by the hand. She was tall and dressed in pale blue transparencies, with a tight purple girdle, and a gleaming silver star surmounted her soft hair like a coronet.
John stared. In all his many and easy adventures with women he had never seen anyone like her. There was a fragility to her body yet the glow of health. Her eyes were luminous, of a warm green shade, and they seemed to hold strange secrets. Her body was identical with an Earth woman’s except that the fingers were smoothly longer and the high forehead was slightly more prominent. He felt some hypnotic influence flow from her into his mind, and involuntarily stepped forward, then stopped, suddenly remembering his companion. He had not thrilled like this since he was seventeen.
Across the room, Hilda clasped the wrinkled glove on her artificial hand, until the fingers of her right hand were white, but she smiled and talked to Doctor Smithson as if she had not noticed.
“We will go now,” said Zingar, taking command of the little party. “In the hallway are insulated suits for protection against our midnight cold. The ship will be warm, but we must step from the desert to your underground entrance. I do not think we will be hindered. The Old Ones sleep soundly.” It was almost miraculous that his accent and hesitation disappeared so rapidly, perhaps because he was still relatively young and adaptable.
Their small round ship flared over the blackened planet; its rays, that had been invisible in the daylight, were now gleaming silent jets on the dimly starlit desert. Dr. Smithson, Jake, and Hilda sat together at the rear of their cabin compartment. John and Zingar’s lovely sister stared into the night ahead. He had not touched her yet, but he felt drawn to her with a strange compulsion, partly spiritual. Her name was Molaee.
Mary and Zingar were now frankly in love, and sat with arms around each other, quietly content, as if they had never been strangers. The Mind Sounder was attached to her gleaming hair by its smooth round disk and she seemed to be pouring her whole life into Zingar’s eager mind. All maidenly reserve had vanished. None of his questions embarrassed her.
That’s a good thing, thought John, noticing them. Mary will keep him with us, and he will make her come to life.
They had flashed on through the night for about half an hour when Jake yelled, “They’re after us!”
Like tiny streaming rockets a fleet of the little ships danced over the horizon in pursuit, still so distant as to seem but fireflies.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said Zingar, leaving Mary and staring behind them, somberly, “they will slowly overtake us but we will make the underground city in time. They have no weapons, for our civilization had no need for them. It will take time to invent and manufacture the means of destruction.”
In half an hour, their ship slid slowly to the ground as Zingar deftly manipulated the controls. They donned the opaque and clumsy insulation garments, fastened helmets above them, and ran across the frozen sand toward the great copper door, dull in the starlight. John fumbled at the hand lock, but finally got it open, just as the first of the pursuing ships began its perpendicular descent from the higher air. The second metal door slid noisily into place before the lifting rays could touch them, and Hilda snapped on her radilight flash to guide the party down the sandy tunnel toward the colony.
In another half hour they were sitting in council, with Major Mattson, Hemingway, the old chemist, Dr. Henderson and other officials.
Dr. Henderson paid little attention to his recovered companions but questioned Zingar rapidly. The Mind Sounder and an occasional written question, or reference to a lexicon, kept the interview going smoothly. Finally Zingar stood and addressed the entire group.
“My people are ruthless and unemotional, but they are not equipped for war. I think this will be their plan of attack. They will set their machinery to work, producing the war weapons of several of the primitive planets, but that will take time, perhaps six months. Meanwhile they will try strategy, and perhaps drive the Mars beasts at us with their ship flares at night.”
“What’s them Martian beasts like?” grunted Jake. “That’s maybe something I could fight.”
“Oh, they’re horrible!” murmured Mary. “Here, look at the pictures in this manual.”
The old marine’s weatherbeaten face paled a bit, but his voice was steady, as he said, “Well, anyway, they can’t get through them copper doors.”
“No, but my people will batter those down,” said Zingar in a low tone.
“Then we must prepare for defense,” cried Dr. Henderson, “if they can break down the front door we must barricade every passageway and fight them back foot by foot. What is the substance of your ship’s hull?”
“It is a very dense metal, unknown to you. None of your rays will penetrate it except the atom cannon.”
“And we only have one old cannon, with hardly any of the power jackets—” groaned Dr. Henderson, desperately.
“We will save that for the last attack,” said Zingar, calmly. “The disintegrators will hold the beasts back for a long time, but there are thousands of them. How many of the half-hour disintegrator charges do you have?”
“Not very many—The Earth Council was limited in its budget. Perhaps they would last one day of continuous firing.”
In two days the whole underground city was buzzing with activity. Mark Hemingway had improvised a laboratory and was isolating the various minerals of the corridor walls, seeking materials for ammunition. Major Mattson drilled all the able-bodied men and organized them under group officers. The crippled men and women were soon co-operating in a central factory unit, where hand forges, and smelting pits, were producing crude weapons of war. There were many women working, even at the heavier tasks. The enfeebled patients lay on their cots and rolled bandages, or did other light tasks.
Great stores of cooked food were being prepared against the day when every cook would be in the fighting lines. The able-bodied soldiers divided their time between drilling under Major Mattson, and erecting barriers as directed by old Jake, whose practical ingenuity used the abundant supply of cheap blasting powder to skillfully crumble corridor walls. Their one power crane heaped the rubble into thick barriers, each with a narrow defensible slit. Huge boulders were balanced, ready to fall into the opening when a flash match should be applied to a cloth fuse.
They had been working a few minutes, on the third morning, when, the radio outpost at the farthest entrance announced, “The beasts are coming!”
There were no television screens, but the announcer’s description was horrible enough.
“They’ve got walking snakes in front—with triangular heads like rattlers—probably poisonous—but a bite from one of those babies would be enough anyway, they’re twenty feet long. Now they are nearer—I wondered how they could come so fast—They’re running. Every damned one of them has a row of little short legs, that hustle them along…. Their hissing sounds like steam from hundreds of locomotives, even in this atmosphere.”
The announcer quieted down to a sense of awe—”Off to the side, there’s a group of big things … big as six elephants, with long, heavy tails dragging, and small heads. They seem to be covered with some kind of scales.
“Up in the air is a flight of flying lizards, about six feet long I should guess, and I can see their teeth flashing when a ship gets near. They keep trying to turn back, but the ships herd them in the air like a flock of flying sheep. Probably only dangerous when cornered. I wonder if they are poisonous.
“There’s a space of several miles of clear desert behind, and beyond there is a dark wave of beasts clear to the sky line. I can’t see them, because it is still too dark…. It looks like a black ocean rolling at us!” The announcer’s voice stopped and the silence was oppressive.
“Hell, I’ve seen worse than that in the D.T.’s,” cracked one of the alcoholics, but his hands trembled as he picked up the largest of the crude stone throwers. “This pop gun might stop one of the birds, but it wouldn’t do much to the giant elephants.”
Major Mattson roared into a megaphone in the huge drill room. “Well, boys, this is it—We’ve got plenty to fight and damned little to fight with. If we can get all the big beasts with the disintegrators before they break down the barriers, we’ll be O.K. The Mars Colony expects every man to shoot his damndest—Let’s go!”
The cheering mob, in loose order, ran down the corridors with their pathetic little guns, Major Mattson and Jake in the lead. Jake leaped on his new legs like a man of twenty, and roared as if he had found a new hold on life. The buzz and hum of activity behind them continued. Forges flared, hammers clanged, and in the distance some of the patients were singing a martial hymn.
John watched the dark tide approaching the cliff entrance, from his observation slit high overhead. He leaned as close to it as his oxygen helmet would allow and spoke quietly into the transmitter.
“They’re bringing up the Magnadons. I can see that there is a strange ape-like creature riding each one and steering it with some kind of a burning rod. These are about the size of men but they look small in comparison. I wonder if those apes are in communication with the ships, or just ordinary desert anthropoids.”
He left the explanation to Zingar, back in headquarters, and continued to report the dawn approach. Overhead, almost a hundred ships hovered close above the seething flow of animal and reptile life. Several were near the entrance, and the defenders experimentally tried out their weapons.
The first barrage was from old explosive shell weapons. But as each shell flashed and roared toward the ships it seemed to hit an invisible wall of force about fifty feet from the hull where it exploded in empty air. The ships were not even rocked, but the Magnadons squealed in terror. Vibrations of the explosions jarred the door frame, even the cliff itself.
The disintegrator artillery scarred the thick hulls slightly but the invisible rays failed to penetrate far, even in a direct hit, and the weaving ships took most of these shots at glancing angles with no damage.
The defenders tried their thunder-spreading atomic cannon once. Its lightning flash struck one of the tiny ships full center and a gaping hole burst inward and out the rear section of the hull, so that the morning sky showed through. The defenders cheered when this was reported. The little ship lurched up into the air, and others drew near, grappling it with more tractor rays. John, could see the unconscious forms of old men carried past the ragged hole by helmeted figures and into another ship, through joined hulls. When the crippled craft was released it crashed quickly on the still frozen desert sand. Then it rolled over and lay still. But one shot from the atomic cannon took the force of one power jacket—and there were only nine jackets left!
Dr. Henderson ordered the atomic cannon withdrawn to the central defense area, against that time when the Martian ships would be flying down the high corridors, directing a river of snakes and flying lizards.
The battle went on with disintegrator rays dropping scores of the air-screaming, twisting Mars snakes, and one or two of the smaller group of Magnadons. But the Martian ships, finding that the atomic cannon was no longer in operation shielded one of the Magnadons with their hulls as the great beast approached and put its shoulders against the copper door. The locks held until the doors buckled in the center, as if hit by a giant battering ram. Air hissed out, and a moment later the gigantic beast burst through, only to fall trumpeting to the ground under a disintegrator ray. In thirty seconds it was dead.
But behind it slithered and ran the great snakes, with their gaping jaws and long dripping fangs. They seemed as numerous as the white flashing waves of an angry ocean shore. Overhead, the roof was black with flying lizards, bumping and crowding in the dim shadows, with ridiculous faint mewing sounds. Stone throwers dropped hundreds of these, and disintegrators stopped dozens more of the running snakes, until a wall of dead flesh protected the second defensive barrier.
Major Mattson gave the order, and a flash and roar of blasting powder dropped a great boulder into place. The corridor seemed almost still, shut off from the jungle sounds of their inhuman enemies. The men retreated in good order to the next defense wall. They realized that their ammunition must be conserved against the real menace, the thundering herd of Magnadons, with their guiding, sheltering ships….
The first corridor entrance was burst through after ten minutes by one of the great beasts, which fell in the gap and had to be pulled back by the ships. Boulders rolled out like pebbles from further blows, until the opening was wide enough for a protecting ship to fly through, low over the sandy floor, with a Magnadon nosing behind it. The great feet thumped deliberately down toward the Earthmen, plunging ten inch tracks into the packed sand, each as large as a small round table. Shooting the apes from their backs did not stop them.
John had withdrawn from the lookout post just as the first entrance door crashed. He then operated one of the disintegrator batteries, until recalled to the council chamber. From there he learned that the same battle scene was being repeated at each barrier. Sometimes a Magnadon was killed before it broke through, sometimes after. The Martians protected the great beasts as well as they could, hoarding their supply. Zingar said it would take two months to bring a new herd from the swamp lands, as there was no way to transport them except on slow surface sleds.
Because of the strange nature of this combat the defenders suffered no casualties. The snakes and flying lizards were killed and piled up in front of each barrier. After each firing slit was sealed there was a brief rest.
At last the defenders attempted strategy. Seeing that under the present conditions it was only a matter of time, Major Mattson called for volunteers to attempt the capture of a shipload of the Martians to hold as hostages. About a dozen men made a sortie against the snakes, knowing it was futile, but succeeding in drawing the ship down over them. They were sucked up by the tractor rays, and pulled into the little hull but every man’s pockets had been filled with gas capsules, and, as they fell unconscious under the paralysis mirrors, yellow clouds of gas filled the ship’s cabin until the white bearded old Martians were unconscious too.
The battle had proceeded nearly to the central defense area, and now the atomic cannon flashed a hole through the Mars ship, high up in the hull, causing it to crash. A desperate charge of all the defenders kept the Mars snakes back long enough to allow the unconscious enemies and volunteers to be brought back behind the last and strongest barrier. They made it just before the first of the rescuing ships reached the spot. Several of the battered and atom shocked men never recovered consciousness. All were carried to the hospital behind the fighting front.
Then came a lull in the battle. The Magnadons and ships withdrew, leaving only the hissing and twisting snakes in the corridor, and a small observation ship down the tunnel out of range. The flying lizards took this opportunity to escape. A few snakes that had crawled through were disintegrated. This was the situation faced by the council of war, at noon.
Dr. Henderson’s white coat was now spattered with blood, where he had carried and treated some of the wounded. His face seemed old and drawn, as he addressed the Council.
“It looks bad—If we had a hundred atomic power jackets left, instead of eight, we might make it. I wonder if they know how limited our supply is.”
Under the emotional situation, Zingar’s accent was more pronounced but intelligible, “Every word we speak is amplified by their distance receivers. A race that can faintly hear train whistles on earth, and can see the surface of your planet as if with a large telescope from the moon, doesn’t have much trouble to know what our situation is. But we have one bargaining point. Old Senegar was in that first ship, and his intelligence is in ratio to that of the other Martians as one hundred to one. They would concede almost anything to preserve his safety.”
“But how can we bargain, since we have no way to escape the planet?” asked John.
“We might hold the old man as a permanent hostage until the time when Mars is in proximity to Earth again, a year from next August, and the colony supply ship comes,” suggested Mark Hemingway.
“The old man wouldn’t live that long,” said Zingar quietly. “This atmosphere would be fatal to him—Let me talk to my father.”
“Your father!” cried Mary. Quickly adjusting the headphone of the Mind Sounder she poured out her unconscious sympathy to her lover’s receiving mind. He drew her to him gently, and then turned and faced the others, still holding her.
“Let me talk to him,” he said, “I think I have an idea.”
The group walked hurriedly behind Zingar and Dr. Henderson toward the field hospital area.
There was a silent drama of sympathy in the expression of these two Martians, as Zingar stood near his father’s hospital cot. They spoke rapidly but quietly in their own language.
“What’s he sayin’?” growled Jake. “Can we trust the young squirt?”
“I don’t understand,” said John. “I only know a few of their words. But they keep repeating one word which means ‘cripples,’ or ‘sick’.”
At last the young Martian turned and spoke to them, but mostly to Mary—”How much do you love your native planet? Would you be willing to stay with us—all of you to be healed and made well, and serve to invigorate the stock of the Mars men?”
There was a buzz of excitement and argument. Most of the Earthmen who had not seen the hidden Martian city were violently opposed, but a few were too sick to care—and many remembered that they were lost anyway, when the atomic power jackets should be exhausted. John stood close to Molaee and looked at her questioningly.
“Don’t stay for my sake, John,” she said sadly, “our instincts draw us to each other, but our minds are a whole generation apart. We would have constant misunderstandings. Remember, I am as old as Zingar.”
He hesitated a moment, then wrote, “But Mary and Zingar are planning to be married.”
“That is their business,” she replied looking at Mary. “Perhaps it is a reasonable chance to take when the husband is the older mentality, but I don’t want a mental child for a husband. Besides I—I have been remembering Nogar, my former lover—before I saw you.”
Their isolated dialogue was only a small murmur in the vocal excitement of the throng of Earth people, which suddenly quieted as Major Mattson boomed over the crowd with his megaphone—”Well, shall we vote on it?”
But Zingar raised his hand and cried, “Wait!—My father should speak first.”
The old man sat painfully up in his bed and spoke into the microphone of the old amplifying set so that his sibilant whispering voice echoed the broken accents down the high vaulted ceilings of the great cave space.
“Listen to me well, O selected people of a youthful race—This violence has been a vast folly. I should have realized before…. My sense of the aesthetic was offended by your ugliness, especially by the sick and crippled among you, so that I did not realize your one great virtue which cancels all the rest. I have observed the co-operative efficiency of your defenses, especially the strange spirit of sacrifice in the little band who came out to trick us. We were not ready for that, for we have no such spirit of unselfishness among us. It is a virtue that Mars needs. Your very handicaps have taught you a lesson of group action—a lesson of inestimable worth. We need every one of your unique personalities in our community life. It will be a simple thing to heal you of your diseases, and to prolong your lives. The memory of your sufferings will give new youth and a new spirit to Mars—life, perhaps even prove a biological salvation. Stay with us—we wish you well….”
The old man fell back exhausted—and closed his eyes. John leaped to the platform, and cried to the several hundred men and women before him, “That settles it! I’m for staying….”
He made an impassioned speech and stepped down. Others followed, but he was not very attentive to their words. Hilda crept to him, unobserved in the excitement. She said, “Oh, John, my hand can be healed—Now I will be proud to marry you—as you asked me three years ago, if you still want me….”
“Why, you dumb Bunny! As if a bum flipper had anything to do with that….” He took her in his arms. They did not even vote when the hands were called for—or know that the decision had been made….
When the supply ship arrived, a year and a half later, there were no signs of the colony left. Spread around on the sand were various artificial limbs, crutches, spectacles, hearing devices, and bits of clothing, scattered in between many bleached and weather beaten bones….
The ship’s crew gathered up these medical relics as proof and sadly turned away. The captain thought it rather a pity since the ship had been sent to bring the sick ones home, in response to a wave of indignation aroused two years before by Hilda’s broadcast from the District Hospital.
They carried a few of the bones back, carelessly scooped up by the electric shovel that gathered the crutches and other paraphernalia.
An obscure scientist’s assistant at Johns Hopkins tried to arouse excitement by claiming that these were not human bones, but from anthropoid apes—However, there was another war brewing, and nobody would listen to him.