The Grave of Solon Regh
By CHAS. A. STEARNS
Among the miserable Ghels of southern Mars
George Seeling ventured—ready to share his
fearless feats with all the world—but hardly
ready to share the grave of Solon Regh.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
George Seeling was one of the most personable ghouls you would ever care to meet. When he disappeared three years ago, somewhere in the unexplored wilderness of southern Mars, his loss was mourned not only by the Terran Museum of Natural History, for whom he worked, but by a multitude of lovers of adventure by proxy, as well, who kept up with his astounding fortunes through their daily papers.
For George Seeling, who feared nothing that walked, crawled, flew, or pulsed, and who owned, moreover, a shining pair of seven league boots, in the form of an inexhaustible expense account, believed in sharing himself with the public. He adored publicity.
There was the time, for instance, that he made off with the crown jewels of the Tsarn Princess of Ganymede. The people loved it. All of them excepting, of course, the Ganymedians. They were considerably upset, but being a minority group, there was not much that they could do, once Seeling had escaped with the jewels.
Then there was the celebrated occasion of his robbing the crypts of Nakor, the Moon Goddess of Io. From Io he swiped several golden idols of inestimable value, which was just as well, for they were not doing the natives the least bit of good, despite their complaints. It almost caused an international incident, but the Museum kept the treasure, and their procurer collected a fat commission.
This, as one can readily see, demonstrates graphically that George Seeling felt almost as much at home in tombs as he did in the public eye.
The south of Mars is a rugged land of naked, red peaks and deep, impassable canyons; of reed-filled swamp lands and barren plateaus. The people who live there are primitive, and thin as greyhounds, but of a shy, gentle nature, with huge, dark, melting eyes set deep in leathery, purplish skin, and nervous, splayed bare feet that can pad the sands of the uplands at incredible speed.
To George Seeling the ghels were merely an incidental impression to add to the menagerie of weird people from many worlds that already stuffed his brain and made him rather a cosmopolitan with regard to alien cultures. He had already spent several weeks on Mars; most of it in Parthena, the chief spaceport of southern Mars, where he haunted the bars of the native district, asking, seeking, wheedling, bribing, until he found what he sought—a man who could lead him to one of the old cities that lay hidden back in the hills.
So it came about that he landed himself and his guide in a rented ‘copter on a certain, uncharted mountainside to the south and west of Parthena.
Through the field glasses, the minarets of the city were just visible, but it was impossible to get any closer for there was no place to land. The old Martians had been averse to flat roofs, a circumstance which led Seeling to doubt, audibly, that they could have had the sense of an addled eel.
After loading himself down with the paraphernalia that explorers are supposed to carry, he went on alone, the guide declining an invitation to accompany him.
It was almost dark when he stumbled over the first bit of masonry—some prehistoric curbstone, perhaps. He had walked for hours in a tangled forest of giant reeds, and the suddenness of his discovery startled him.
He had wandered right into the midst of the abandoned city without even knowing it. Such was the customary luck of George Seeling. He could see shadowy outlines of some of the eroding old towers from where he stood, but he knew it was too late in the evening to explore them safely. He had waited this long; it wouldn’t hurt to wait through one more short, Martian night.
He found a clearing near a roofless columnar tower and spread his sleeping bag beneath its wall. He went to sleep elated with his good fortune, and slept dreamlessly, and without disturbance.
But then, it took a great deal to disturb George Seeling when he slept.
In the morning the ghels were there. There were about a dozen of them, silently squatting in a semi-circle about his camp, contemplating him at a respectful distance with their soulful, gazelle eyes.
There is something disconcerting about waking up and finding that one has acquired uninvited guests, but Seeling never turned a hair. He reached over and grabbed his rifle, but the ghels never moved. They looked, for all the world, like purple-brown graven images squatting there, except that the round, black eyes blinked once in a while.
The ghel tongue was a very rudimentary one, and Seeling, who was naturally adept at such things, had studied it at some length during the weeks in Parthena. He felt that he could get along.
“I greet you,” he said, still fondling his rifle. “I am an Earthman.”
“We know,” one of the ghels said in a curious, whistling voice. “What do you want here?”
“I come to see the city,” George said.
“This is the sacred dead city of Solon Regh, the wisest of the ancient ones. We do not welcome visitors here.”
“It’s not your city, dammit,” George said.
“What did you say?”
“Sorry, I said, this is not the work of your race. Why do you care if I look around?”
“It is a shrine. The old ones took care of us before they went away. We loved them, and do not want their dead disturbed.”
George Seeling grinned with delight. He never enjoyed himself so much as when he was where he wasn’t supposed to be.
“We would be very sad if the dead were desecrated,” the ghel said.
“Umm,” said Seeling impudently, “but what would you do if I went ahead and desecrated them anyway?”
The head ghel looked shocked. He turned his saucer eyes on his companions, and they all squirmed on their haunches and looked shocked too.
“We would be very sad,” the ghel answered.
“No hard feelings,” George Seeling said, “but if the advancement of science and the dispersal of knowledge were left up to you fellows, the world would be in a hell of a fix.” He aimed his rifle suggestively at the ghel’s chest. “Do you know what this is that I am pointing at you?”
“It is a death stick. We have seen them before.”
“Right. Now, there’s something you can do for me, and I’ll take it very kindly if you cooperate.”
“Kindness is something we understand.”
“That’s fine. Somewhere about here are the tombs of the old race. All the legends of Mars tell about the wealth of the ancients, and I hear this Solon Regh was sort of a Martian King Tut. Lead me there, and I’ll be kind enough to spare your life.”
The ghels all blinked their eyes rapidly. Seeling fancied that there would have been tears in their eyes, except that ghels have no tear glands. He felt a little sorry for them.
“Come with us,” the leader of the ghels said.
Seeling was properly impressed. He had seen enough of the old cultures of the planets to realize that here, indeed, was something special. The walls loomed high above his head, shutting out the light of the morning sun as he walked down the street canyons where the vegetation had not yet penetrated. The ghels padded on ahead of him.
There was a musty smell about the place. Most appropriate. And the old timers had quite a flair for architecture, he thought. The masonry was a kind of cemented substance that was nearly as hard as granite. The weather had eroded it into a lovely, pearly grayness that was satiny smooth to the touch. He stroked the walls lovingly, and wished that he could transport the whole place back to Earth.
At the end of one street a bright yellow kral snake struck at him and he killed it with the butt of his rifle. They encountered no other life. Everywhere there was silence.
The ghels made several turns through narrow passageways, and all at once Seeling was face to face with the most breathtaking sight he had ever beheld.
In a great, hidden courtyard the palace lay. It was at least six hundred feet high, from massive base to delicate multiple pinnacles that festooned the arched roof. The facade was inscribed with countless lacy designs, set into the mother masonry with snowy white stones.
The great arched doorway gaped open invitingly to the kind of darkness that Seeling found most exciting.
The ghels stopped. “You are certain that you will not change your mind?”
“Look here,” Seeling said. “I’ve come here to collect artifacts, or anything I can lay my hands on for my people on Earth. If I don’t bring something good back, they’ll send others who won’t be as patient with you as I am.”
“That is sad, indeed, for the Radiance that made us still lingers in the castle,” said the ghel.
“I’m not going to hurt His Radiant Majesty, whoever he is,” Seeling said. “What I want is junk—stuff that you never use anyhow. So let’s get on with it.”
George Seeling was panting by the time he had climbed to the top of the central tower. He had always thought of a tomb as some damp, dark hole beneath the surface of the ground, for such had been his experience many times before. But the resting place of Solon Regh the Wise was a large, light room, not half so eerie as the big throne room below, for instance.
It took him five minutes to work the mechanism of the outer door. When he got it open he went in and found a convenient coffin to sit on, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and indulged in a cigarette before continuing.
The room had no windows, but there was light coming in from the great transparent dome of roof. A cheerful place, he thought, for a crypt. There were six coffins in the room, neatly arranged around its periphery. He wondered which one was Solon Regh’s.
All of the biers were plain, untarnished metal—a silvery alloy he couldn’t quite identify. Upon one of them there was a modest crest, or symbol. That one, he decided, must be the coffin of Solon Regh.
He was feeling a little ill. A headache from the altitude, he thought. Or perhaps he’d caught a touch of the fever. Better to get it over with and get out of here. All the pleasure of discovery was gone now.
He took out his array of chisels and went to work on the coffin, which yielded easily to his professional looter’s touch. The lid was light and slid aside soundlessly.
George Seeling came face to face with Solon Regh. The relics of Regh the Wise seemed to be in perfect condition. Over all lay a semi-transparent coating of a waxy substance—the preservative, he supposed. The figure was as large as his own. The old race must have been much closer, genetically, to his own than the ghels.
But Seeling was not concerned with any of this. He flopped Solon Regh over on his belly without ceremony and examined the bottom of the coffin. It was no use. No treasure here. He did find something, however. The ring on Solon Regh’s finger. He chipped off the preservative, slid the ring off and put it in his pocket. Then he examined the other coffins. Wives, perhaps, and dignitaries of court, these had been. There were both male and female. But no jewelry.
He searched the room carefully, but there was nothing to be found. It had not been their custom, then, to bury their treasures with the dead—or perhaps the ghels had taken it. No matter, he knew the futility of looking further.
When a race chose to hide its treasures, rather than try to take them along to the happy hunting grounds, they usually did a good job. He remembered searching in vain for a solid year in the catacombs of Neptune once.
His face was burning with some inner fire now; he knew that he must have a high fever. He felt much worse. But to go back empty handed!
And suddenly he knew that he would not.
He took the steps back down to the throne room three at a time, for he felt, strangely, that he must hurry. The ghels were still waiting for him there in the gloom. There seemed to be more of them now, but he didn’t bother to count.
“I want eight of you,” he said. “You are to come with me up to the crypts. I’m taking the coffin of Solon Regh back with me, and you are going to carry it. I don’t want any arguments. I’ll pay you whatever you want, but it’s got to be done right away.”
They were not a strong race, the ghels, and the box was without handles, but they finally got it to their shoulders. Twice coming down the spiraling staircases they slipped, and he cursed them furiously, then was amazed that he could be so distraught.
They carried it down to the throneroom and set it down. The big rotunda was full of ghels by this time; hundreds of them.
“What the hell is this?” George Seeling said, and his voice sounded thick to him. “If you’re going to start trouble—I’ll kill the first ghel that lays a hand on me or the coffin.”
He waited for an answer. There was not a sound among the dark multitude of ghels. They watched him, sorrowfully.
“Well?” Seeling bellowed.
The ghel who had talked with him before said, “We are gathered here for a telling. Will you crouch there and hear us?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Please hear us.”
Seeling looked around him. Better not to antagonize them at that, he supposed, since it seemed that they had no intentions, at present, of doing anything drastic.
“Long ago,” the ghel said, “there were the old ones. They were as gods, and knew great magic. All was happiness. But the magic was not great enough, for one day there came invaders from beyond the stars, and sprayed the cities with green fire that was so light that its touch could not be felt, and yet it killed in great numbers—and the rest it changed.
“Solon Regh, who was wise, took his family about him and hid in the tower behind air-tight doors where the green fire could not come. Many weeks he stayed there, with an air purifier to keep out the radiance, and let in fresh air, and at last the enemy left. The ones who were left had changed more and more, so that even in their heads they were affected, and could scarcely take care of themselves.
“Solon Regh, from behind his steel door, where the pure air was, sorrowed for us, and counseled us to pick up our lives as best we could. He did not dare come out because the radiance did not leave, but hung about the palace. We did not care any more. We knew the radiance would always be there, but it could not hurt us now. Solon Regh and his family did all they could for us, and remembered all the wonderful knowledge that we had forgotten. They tried to teach us, but we had forgotten how to learn, too.”
“We? We?” George Seeling screamed. “What are you talking about?”
“We ghels. Do you not understand? We were the old ones.”
“Oh, God!” George said.
“The Radiance is still in the buildings. That is what we tried to tell you before. But it is too late now. It has touched you.”
“Let me out of here!” Seeling sobbed. “I won’t be changed by any damned radiation. I’ll go back to Earth. They’ll help me. They’ll know what to do. He-help me, dammit!”
“You will not go back,” the ghel said. “I am sorry, but you really cannot go back like this; you will be more at home here from now on.”
All the ghels looked at George Seeling with sad, limpid stares. They were silent. There wasn’t any more to be said. Nothing that they could think of.
And George Seeling, squatting there, gazed back at them with big, saucer eyes.#ENGLISH