By MILLARD GRIMES
Nance smiled foolishly. The long trip back to
Earth from Mars wouldn’t be at all dull. It might
well be one long delicious chuckle over a great,
grim and incredible joke. And wouldn’t Nance’s
little cocker spaniel appreciate it most of all?
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories March 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
He was lying in the grass and his cute little cocker spaniel was nibbling on his ear when the message came. He was breathing the fragrant air of spring and feeling cool spring breeze and the solid earth under the grass beneath him, while the dog with doleful eyes delighted him with her tricks.
His name was Oscar Nance, and he was the world’s top archaeologist. That was why the message came to him when the UN began selecting a crew for Earth’s first expedition to Mars.
“We want you,” the message read. It was an invitation that was difficult to refuse. He cuffed the cocker on the ear. She barked softly and let her tongue hang out at the cutest angle. “Good-bye, Mimsy,” he said. The dog was all he had on this world. “I’ll miss you, lady,” Nance told the dog. She licked his hand.
Then Nance raised his six-three form from the soft grass and started with a careless gait toward the boarding house where he lived during infrequent visits to his home town. Usually he took Mimsy with him on his trips but he knew this trip would not be available for pets.
He stopped at the house and told his landlady to be sure and take care of the dog while he was gone. “I sure will,” the landlady told him. She already had Mimsy’s supper of liver and dog biscuits waiting on the hearth.
A day later, Oscar Nance became a part of man’s grandest adventure….
The place where the first earth ship to Mars landed was very cold and very dead. The commander of the expedition was a gruff, retired Army general who had a smattering of science and a great deal of command. His crew, with the exception of two handy men, was composed of the leading persons in all branches of Terran science. None of them were women, and most of them were young.
Oscar Nance was 34. He had been around the world 10 times, with particular emphasis on Easter Island and the Antarctica.
The ship had taken two weeks to bridge the gap between Earth and Mars. The voyage had been smooth. Every man aboard knew his job, and they were following a plan that the U.N. had worked on for 20 years. Boone, the commander, had been a top general in World War III. He was efficient, stern, colorless to the point that he was almost colorful.
Immediately upon landing, Boone had dispatched two cats to take the first steps onto Mars. The cats suffered no ill effects, and now the Commander was preparing for the crew to explore the new world.
He pointed to Nance and Zoologist Braun. “You, Nance, and Braun, and myself, will form one group,” he said. He quickly divided the remaining twelve men into three groups. One was to stay at the ship, the other two would be exploring units.
When the small group of Earthmen descended from the ship to alien soil, Commander Boone’s businesslike manner seemed to take much of the glamour from the moment. “No heroics, Commander?” Physicist Allgood asked.
Boone was not a man for ceremony. “We’re here,” he said. “We must see what is here. We must get back.”
What was there was not a great deal. Some vegetation did exist, and there was a thin coat of snow spread over the few scraggly trees. Commander Boone surveyed the surrounding land through his spyglass, then suddenly lowered it with a set expression on his face. “There’s a city to the North,” he announced. He checked the group’s immediate enthusiasm with a harsh bellow. “There’s no movement there,” he barked. “And from the looks of the buildings there’s been no life there for centuries. However, if there is intelligent life, we will find it there, but it may not be friendly.”
Boone studied the buildings to the North for another moment, then turned to Nance and Braun. “We three will explore the city,” he rasped into the thin air. “You others will fan out in other directions and meet back here in an hour.” He paused emphatically. “If we do not come back, bring every weapon in the ship when you come to get us. I repeat, life here, if any, may not be friendly. That is why we can’t afford to risk the whole party on an expedition to the city.”
Nance and Braun followed the stern old General as he set out on foot in a northward direction. The other parties went their own way. The three men spoke sparingly during the hour’s walk to the buildings. Mars was too quiet, almost like a funeral parlor, Nance thought, and perhaps the corpses were waiting on their slabs in the city now rising before them. The air was tolerable but cold, and the sun was fighting a losing battle with a heavy fog. Nance finally made out the form of the structures when they were only a mile away. As they drew nearer, he noticed that the buildings were made of solid stone, apparently, and rivaled the pyramids in height. There were gigantic cracks in the walls of many, and a few had crumbled to the ground.
As the three entered the city, Nance dropped to his knees and examined the stone closely. “Good Lord,” he gasped. “Mars must have been deserted for thousands of years. It would require that long for stone like this to deteriorate.”
Boone stared at the winding street between the fallen buildings. “Then no intelligent life exists here,” he said.
Braun looked up from a small flower which he’d found. “I challenge that statement, Commander,” he said. “Life could exist here today. Perhaps the life that is here just doesn’t know how to keep house very well, and let the work of its ancestors go to ruin.”
“Well, then, let’s investigate,” Boone ordered. He led the way into the nearest structure, a gnarled hand falling close to the automatic which hung at his side. But there was nothing in the building save the rubble of a dead civilization and rusted machines which once must have given life and meaning to Mars.
They left and went on to the second building. Here they found life.
Life was in a back room that had one small window to admit light. Nance entered. The light was so dim that he did not see it at first. He saw it when it moved, slowly, clumsily in a far corner, as if awaking from a long sleep. Nance quickly shone his flashlight over the room and onto the life.
“Commander Boone, Braun, come here,” he shouted. The other two men were at his side almost instantly.
Nance directed his beam of light to the face of the creature in the corner. The creature looked remarkably like a man. He had huge jowls and long overlapping ears, and was somewhat fat. He blinked tiny eyes at the light for a moment and finally managed to get a look at his visitors.
In English, he growled, “So you’ve come at last.” The flash quivered in Nance’s hand. He remembered his first trip into the pyramids, and suddenly he knew how he would have felt if King Tut’s mummy had spoken to him—in English.
Boone’s voice quavered. “It speaks English. That’s not possible.”
It was gruff, drawling English, sometimes not plain, but it was English. And it kept coming. “I’ve waited so long,” the creature said. He lifted an arm in welcome. Nance noted the fingers were joined together. “I’ve waited and paid with each moment for an error my ancestors made.” He moved his shaggy head and surveyed the crumbled room. “Now my abode is not fit to receive guests,” he rumbled.
“Who…. What are you?” Commander Boone managed, making a gallant effort to sound authoritative.
Braun suddenly laughed. “He looks like a comic strip St. Bernard,” he roared, and then laughed some more at the thought. Boone glared at him, obviously not sharing his mirth.
The creature laughed also. He leaned his head back and laughed uproariously. “My name is Staang,” he said. “I am a Martian … naturally … in your language. And I am something more than a Martian in your language.” A new wave of laughter shook the creature.
“Are there any more here like you?” Commander Boone demanded.
“A few, just a few,” Staang said. “But won’t you sit down. There’s not much to offer you in the way of comfort, but the floor will do. There must be things you’d like to ask me.”
Staang rose to his feet with evident effort. “Moving,” he grunted, “how I detest moving.” He took a box from an indenture in the wall and began eating the contents, apparently a type of meat. He ate the bone and all. Staang glared at his guests through shaggy eyebrows and smiled. “You’re puzzled,” he said. “You don’t understand my knowing about you, do you?” He seemed extremely pleased with himself.
Nance began doing the talking. “Do you mean Martians have visited the Earth?” he asked.
Staang chuckled loudly. “Yes … yes, I do mean that. Come, let me tell you a story, my friends. I am sure you will find it most interesting.”
“Wait a minute,” Boone barked, his hand now touching his gun. “We’re here for facts. You’re coming back to our ship—peacefully or by force.”
“Peacefully, I assure you, Commander,” Staang said. “But my story—”
“Let him tell it,” Braun said. “Maybe it will explain things. And a lot needs explaining. He seems to have been expecting us.”
“I have, I have,” the Martian muttered, disposing of the last of his food. He threw the box into a corner already piled high with rubble. “You saw the buildings here in this … what was once a great city. These buildings are a few which are left of a civilization which grew weary. ‘Twas not a young race as the one which fostered your world, but an old race which tired of working—even of thinking. The civilization went untended, until finally my ancestors decided they would have to invade another world to find servants to relieve Martians of the work—and the thinking—which they had grown to dislike so much. They reasoned that with proper servants they would have nothing to do but eat and sleep as they wanted.
“So my people invaded another planet.”
“You had space travel then?” Boone demanded. “How long ago was this?”
“Three thousand … maybe four thousand years ago as you count time.”
“But with space travel four thousand years ago,” Nance stammered, “it seems the first planet you would have visited would have been ours—Earth.”
Staang laughed again. “Perhaps it was,” he said. “But let me finish my story.”
“As I said, my people were fat and lazy, as I am now. Thus, open fighting as a means of bringing another race to be our slaves was out of the question. They had to find another way. And they did.
“Our first troops were sent to Agar, and they reported very satisfactory results. Soon, practically the whole population migrated to Agar and the Agarians became our slaves. A few Martians, such as my ancestors, remained here. They kept the record of this invasion and also recorded all correspondence between this planet and Agar. Ah, would they had gone also, so that today I would have nothing to do but eat and sleep, as most of my race does—on Agar.” He yawned at the thought. “Do not think badly of my race,” he implored suddenly. “Some day your people also will grow old and tired.”
Boone grabbed Staang by the arm and shook him firmly. “But where does Earth come in?” he demanded.
Staang gazed at the stern old General and then once again burst into peals of laughter. “You see,” he giggled. “We Martians have another name for your Earth. We call it Agar. Your world is the one my ancestors invaded thousands of years ago. Your people are my people’s slaves until today.”
“Wh … what is he saying?” Nance stammered.
“You’re crazy,” Boone bellowed. “Now I know that you are crazy.”
“That was the nice thing about our invasion.” Staang explained patiently. “The Earthmen did not even realize that they were being invaded—do not even realize today that they are slaves. My people, in their long stay on Earth, have grown even lazier, and particularly their brains have become sluggish during the long years of inaction. Also there have been slight handicaps incurred because of conditions on your world.
“For thousands of years there was regular communication between this planet and our invaders on Earth. The records were kept faithfully by the few Martians remaining here, and in my long years of almost complete solitude I learned your language and the history of my people on your world. I knew that perhaps in my lifetime Earthmen would reach this planet. One of my people predicted in 1396 that your world would attain space travel in the latter part of the 20th century.”
Nance stumbled for words. What creatures of Earth could this being be speaking of, that had such power and progress.
But Staang was talking again in his gruff tones. “Correspondence ceased before my birth. I suppose my people grew too lazy, but the main objective had been reached. There is no work for the higher class Martians on your world, only an easy life with servants plenteous.”
“Wait,” spoke up Braun. “You said higher class Martian. Are there different breeds?”
“Oh, there are many breeds of Martians. Naturally, we had a slave type here in the height of our civilization, and these slaves were worked into your scheme of things to continue being slaves. They aid you Earthmen so that you may better serve the aristocrat Martians.”
“But why haven’t we seen the Martians?” Braun exclaimed. “I’ve seen nothing on Earth like you.”
“No?” said Staang. “Our records say you Earthmen love us and are happy to serve.”
Nance had been studying Staang’s features with a practiced eye, the incredibility of his thoughts silencing his tongue.
But suddenly he realized that the creature was telling the truth—to a point. He knew that the Martians had invaded Earth. “Look at him, Commander,” Nance said. “Don’t you see the resemblance. Martians are on Earth, but we call them—”
“Good Grief!” exclaimed Commander Boone.
Staang snickered. “You call us ‘Man’s Best Friend,’ I believe,” he offered.
Braun gasped, “Dogs.”
“Of course,” Nance said. “Notice Staang’s droopy ears, the long nose, his hands and feet resemble paws. And since Earth’s gravity is greater than Mars’, wouldn’t that tend to pull a person’s arms toward the ground, making them essentially four-footed, instead of two-armed and two-legged as Staang still is.
“That’s what happened to the Martians when they came to Earth, but I don’t suppose they cared. It probably made it easier to walk, and they got what they wanted. After all, don’t we feed the dogs, provide them a place to sleep. They have no real work to do, and only a few are mistreated. Hounds and others of that type must be the slaves Staang is speaking of. The poodles, terriers, and cockers—those strictly pets—must be the higher type.” He almost choked when he got to cocker. He tried not to think of Mimsy as an invader, with him as her slave, but he realized that it amounted to that. Now the landlady was being her slave.
Braun couldn’t restrain another wild laugh as he stared at Staang. “Why, he is a St. Bernard,” he roared.
A bewildered expression covered Boone’s stern face. “The irony,” he gasped. “But you’re right. The dogs do lead the kind of life on Earth that would be desirable to creatures grown too lazy to even think. But to imagine that the ancestors of our dogs once built this city. It’s incredible.”
“Good Lord,” Braun remarked. “Here we have been expecting and talking about invasions from Mars for years, and we’d already been invaded centuries ago. What a laugh they must have had.”
Staang was listening in obvious amusement. “Our invasion was logical,” he said. “Done in a way so as not to offend anyone. Although one creature has resented our invasion and fought as continually. It is called a flea, I believe. But the records say men have done everything possible to rid us of this pest.”
“Even the great rulers of your land, who are waited on hand and foot, are servants of we Martians.”
Boone raised his hand for silence. His features were crestfallen. His expedition had not uncovered what Earth would be glad to hear. “We must go,” he said, but the old authority was gone from his voice.
Staang raised himself to elbows. “Wait, will you not take me with you?”
Boone paused and looked back at the shaggy figure in the gloom. He could see Staang trudging a snowy path with a keg of brandy around his neck. Almost instinctively he patted Staang on the head. “No, old boy,” he said. “You stay here and put this in the record.”
Braun whispered to Nance, “Evidently the Commander has a dog to whom he’s not so stern.”
They left Staang to his food and sleep. There was nothing of much interest on Mars except the old, old cities so long deserted.
So the great expedition departed, to go back to Earth to see the invaders—the Martians they had traveled 38,000,000 miles to see on another world. They wanted to tell Earth of the grim and incredible joke that had been played on her … and Nance meant to have a long talk with Mimsy.