There are some odd word combinations in this work, which have been left below exactly as published.
Mars was ageless, deathless, its dwindling population only interested in the planet’s past glories. Overall dwelt a sentient brooding something which found a way to break through to Earthly minds and shape them to its own ends.
The swing doors of Solar Union swished shut at Mike Barry’s back. He walked hushed, cream and green corridors to a glazed door marked Solar Union Commission, opened it, and passed through. Tall, thirty-five, he looked more. This was it, he thought. Those words on the door were fast becoming mere mockery. But he would never agree to the proposals to be put forward. Never!
A man a few years his junior fell into step beside him. “ Going to vote for the proposal, Mike? ” he asked.
Mike shot him a glance. “ You know I’m not!
Charles Wylie drew in his boyish cheeks. “ You’re dead against it aren’t you.”
"Was never more dead against anything in my life, Charlie."
" There’ll be opposition.”
"I’ve expected it. "
They followed a balcony corridor glazed one side. Near its end Wylie`s hand settled on Mike’s arm. He pointed through the window.
"Your viewpoint isn’t likely to be favoured by certain big business..."
Mike looked out upon the sun-lit building tops. The superior height of the Solar Union block permitted a view to the edge of the city. There, distant beyond the skyline, ten silent rocketships pointed like gleaming lances at the blue heavens. He turned away.
“ Crofton and Williams would never have spent so much cash if they hadn’t expected it to pay. It’s up to me to see that it does.” And to open up this first stepping-stone to the stars, he thought.
Inside, Mike’s gaze flicked over the best-known faces in the committee room. Haggerty, jovial, who winked as if to say “I’m on your side.”
Samuel Carlton, seventy, white-haired, who invariably came to opinions wholly personal. Crofton and Williams, who had put their own and other people’s money into rocketships under Mike’s direction.
"We’ve been waiting, Mr. Barry,” Samuel Carlton said.
Williams nudged Crofton, whispering. Mike saw that a tussle lay ahead. But he would never agree to the proposals. Here, on Earth, it was easy to plan. Out there, on Mars, it was not easy to execute . . . But men -real men -did not give up because a task was hell. His father had been on the first ship, almost thirty years before. Mike, a boy, never forgot his father’s homecoming. The eyes that had looked on Mars had burned. “Colonisation will be some job, son- but worth it--”
Across the table, the chairman spoke. “ You object to our proposals?”
Mike looked back at him. “ I want progress, expansion--”
Samuel Carlton’s eyes glinted. “ Is that reasonable, in this instance? We are proposing that any attempt at colonisation be abandoned for at least twenty years; that in the interim a detailed report on conditions be prepared--”
Mike sat down. “ Mars needs people. We have the ships to take them. It’ll be a man-sized job, but it’s been left too long already.”
“ Sometimes there’s wisdom in letting things lie,” Carlton observed. “ There may be unknown diseases- unknown hazards---”
“ There may,” Mike agreed. “Exploration always uncovers the unknown! ”
Haggerty cleared his throat in the silence. “ Progress at any price Barry? ”
The expected argument had begun, Mike thought. There was a lot to be said on both sides. He wanted men to go to Mars. His reasons were not mere selfish reasons, put forward because of the ten ships. They were deeper reasons. Men had the right to explore . . .
“ We are also proposing that the vessels made ready be modified, and used to transport cargo to Luna,” the chairman observed.
Mike swore silently. Freighters! Carrying machinery to the moon, instead of men to Mars!
“ I shall never agree to such proposals,” he said.
He let his gaze pass round the committee room. Pairs of eyes regarded him . . . out of dusty brown sand. Daylight globes shone overhead . . . through a weak blue sky, fading until there was only sky. The walls were gone. A rusty desert extended to the horizon, still except for tiny dust-devils that danced and swirled across the dunes.
Away to the right, sandstone rocks rose beyond a watercourse that had long since become a mere dusty valley. A thin curl of smoke rose from a tiny Martian fire where herbs stewed in a metal pot. Dry winds sighed
amid the rocks. Soon the sun would be high, burning down from a cloudless sky, so that the dunes seemed to dance in the shimmering haze.
For an infinitesimal yet timeless moment Mike felt that he was encompassed by- was -something immeasurably complex. He was seeking ...seeking...
Then daylight globes burned through the hot sky; faces came, and voices emerged above the whispering wind.
“ The final details should not present much difficulty, Mr. Barry,” a voice said.
Mike met Samuel Carlton’s eyes. Those eyes were tired, now. He looked at the others. Crofton was visibly flagged; Haggerty had perspired. The ashtray before Williams was filled with cigar butts . . Mike momentarily closed his eyes.
Time had flowed. He opened his eyes, looking at the wall clock. Two and a half hours had passed since he had entered the committee room.
The chairman rose. “ We’re pleased that you agreed to our proposals, Mr. Barry,” he said. “ The motion would never have been passed without your support.”
Chairs scraped back and men filed out. Williams was last to go. He paused behind Mike.
“ It’s our money you’ve lost- but your job! ” he snapped. “ Converted to freighters! ” He snorted.
Wylie balanced himself on the balls of his feet, his hands deep in his pockets. “ Never heard a man speak so convincingly, or with such strong conviction! ” he said. “ Nor ever had a bigger surprise in my life.”
“ You shouldn’t have believed your ears, Charlie.” Mike wondered for the thousandth time exactly what had happened. Almost twenty-four hours had elapsed since the committee meeting. He had since gathered that he had spoken long and well- that it was largely through his efforts that the very motion he had intended to condemn had been passed.
Wylie sighed. “ You as good as stood up and asked Crofton and Williams to give you the sack! It would take twenty years freighting to Luna to cover what those ships cost.” `
“ I know.” At first, Mike had tried to explain. The attempt was futile.
"What shall you do? ” a quiet voice asked from by the window.
Mike ceased fiddling with the oddments on his desk. He had been waiting to hear what Judy would say. She seemed to have reserved judgment. At twenty-eight, Judy Metton had a wisdom all her own. It showed in her dark eyes as he met them.
"What shall I do? ” he murmured. “ That’s simple- go to Mars. "
She gave an exclamation. “ But Michael, when you spoke against it! When you pointed out the dangers! When you said that it was unsafe there. and unwise to let people go--” .
“ Forget what I said! ” He found it difficult to keep the snap from his voice.
“ But you said it was quite impracticable to colonise Mars,” she insisted. “ I’ve the report here.”
Mike drew in his cheeks. He had read that report. Every line amazed him. He had set out with great logic every reason why men should not go to Mars. He had even swayed Samuel Carlton into complete agreement. The resolutions had been adopted. Too late, now, to plead that they be reversed. Too late to claim that men could colonise Mars- now -if they tried
"I’m going,” he said.
When Wylie had left them Judy Metton crossed and stood by the desk Mike looked at this blotter.
“ I’m without a job, Judy. What’s more, I’ve been a traitor to Crofton and Williams. The news spreads. Men who handle big money notice and remember such things, and don’t take risks.”
He trailed into silence. She touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mike.” She sighed. “ But why-- why- did you say such things? Solar Union was undecided. You could have talked them into sending those ten ships of colonists. Your opinion carried weight. It still does. You could have started things rolling.”
“ Instead of bringing them to a dead halt.” He did not look up. “ And that’s just the point. I did not. It was someone else- or something else-”
He raised his gaze and studied her face. She did not understand. That was written clear. He stood up.
“ Listen, Judy,” His voice was deadly calm, deadly serious. “ I did not want colonisation stopped. I did not want those ten ships used as freighters to Luna.”
Her eyes were puzzled. “ But, Mike--"
“ I know! ” It seemed hopeless, he thought. “ You don’t believe me. You can’t. I don’t blame you. That’s why I’m going to Mars.”
It was a long time before she spoke. “ Running away... ?"
“ No! ” His eyes burned. “ That’s how it looks- but that’s not the reason!"
There seemed nothing more to say. Judy let herself out and he watched until she had gone from sight along the enclosed balcony. Then he opened his blotter. It held one small clipping from a newspaper two days old. There was no big headline, no front-page display. Only a few lines of small type. “ Local Counsellor pleads for his vote to be changed. ‘ I was asleep, and dreamed of Mars,’ he said . . .”
Mike gazed somberly through the balcony window. Coincidence couldn’t explain away a thing like that.
Mike stood with his back to the dusty wind. The particles crept beneath his clothing and adhered to his skin. The dry, earthy taste was in this mouth, and his goggles prickled where they lay upon his forehead and cheekbones.
"According to the map, it should be there- "
He pointed away across the dusty brown desert which extended to the horizon and beyond. His companion nodded, bleached blue eyes screwed up in his lined and wrinkled face.
“ Should be. But what is an’ what should be ain’t always the same on this planet.”
Mike looked at him quickly. Gibson knew about as much of this part of Mars as any Earthman ever would. Among the first to come, he had stayed, growing old amid the loneliness.
"You know it well, don’t you,” Mike said
“ Well as any man. The deserts and the old cities; the deserted burial grounds and the unfinished canals; the sandstone caves where the last Martians linger, and the polar cradlelands from which they sprang- I’ve seen them all. Their race is older than the race of man, and they know things mysterious to us, for all our knowledge.”
“ So you think I may have tramped all these miles for nothing?2 Mike asked.
"Did I say so? "
Gibson shaded his eyes with a hand. Mike wondered whether he was perhaps, a younger man than he looked, but wrinkled and dried by the parching winds of Mars. Mike thought that his journey might well be wasted. He had come to Mars partly because there was now no job for him on Earth; partly because of his experience, so vivid. Two weeks had passed since his landing; a week, since meeting Gibson in the single tiny Earthmen’s outpost.
They went on, side by side in the loose dust. And this, Mike thought, was to have been a prosperous colony! Money, men, and machines could have made it so. There had been plans, and hopes- including his own. But no fulfilment. Ten ships should have come with five thousand men. Instead, he had come almost alone, on the single ship that maintained Earth’s outpost.
But for himself, those ten ships would have come, he reasoned. A week’s thinking had consolidated his initial guess- someone, or something, on Mars had not wanted those ten ships to come.
“ I remember the ship-load of stuff being put down,” Gibson said, walking with a stride unhindered by the sand. “ Recognised the spot on the map, too, soon as you told me what you’d seen.”
He glanced at Mike curiously, and Mike sensed that his story had not been believed.
“ So you’d seen a picture of that dried-up valley, and cliffs, Mr. Barry? ” There was total disbelief in the tone. “ I’m wondering where such a picture would of come from, I am.”
Mike let it pass, and pointed. “ It should be beyond that ridge? ”
“ Yes. Ground dips just there.”
They plodded on, ankle-deep in loose brown dust that had once been fertile earth. And could be fertile earth again, Mike thought, with proper irrigation and moisture conservation.
“ Suppose Forsythe told you about it,” Gibson observed.
Mike thought it wise not to admit he had never before heard the name. "Tell me about him,” he suggested.
The bleached blue eyes turned upon him, then ahead. “ It was him who had the stuff what I was talking about sent out here. I heard tell that he’d been drummed off Earth. A harmless looking cove, quiet as they make ’em.” Gibson drew in his lips. “ He’ll have been dead this ten years, if I’m a judge.”
“ What kind of- stuff? ”
“ Electronic. A calculator, I’ve heard say.”
Mike mopped his brow. “ He wouldn’t have to leave Earth because of that.”
“ Dunno.” Gibson seemed to have reached the limit of his knowledge. “ That’s what I heard tell.”
They began to climb the long, gentle rise. “ This- calculator,” Mike pressed. “ Is it still there.” “ What’s left of it- a mound of junk.”
They reached the point which had been visible across all the miles of dusty wilderness. A ridge a mile long, and perhaps a thousand feet high, Mike thought that its straightness testified to its artificial origin. Once, perhaps, it had been twice as high, clear-cut, possibly even verdant. Since those days it had been eroded by the winds of time, and was a flattened, elongated mound, backed by sandstone cliffs. He halted.
This was it. Only the viewpoint was different. If he went away down into the valley, and looked back, the scene would be the same. A rusty desert extended to the horizon. From down there, the sandstone would rise beyond the old watercourse, just as it had appeared for that fantastic moment-which had been two and a half hours- in the Solar Union committee room.
He licked his lips, doubly dry. It was a shock to find it just like this. He had felt that Gibson could be wrong, and unable to pin-point the locality on a map from the description alone. Mike half wished that Gibson had been wrong. A dry wind moaned, and dust-devils curved upon the hazy desert, just as when he had first looked upon the scene. He shivered.
Gibson looked at him. “ You got fever?"
Mike turned his back upon the valley. “ I’ve found the spot. Thanks. But that’s all, for now.”
Gibson’s face was disappointed. “Don’t you want to go down? I can show the path. There’s a few chums who’ll be pleased to meet you.”
“ Oh, another day.” Mike wondered if the survivors of the planet’s past masters numbered a thousand in all. “I want to radiograph Earth.”
They turned their feet down the dusty, shifting slope.
The outpost that was to have been a centre for colonisation stood with its foundations in an outcrop of red sandstone. To have been a terminus for the coming of thousands, it sheltered a hundred men. Half were experts investigating with the infinite slowness of government officials; half were a flotsam drifted in for reasons other men would never know. Some were the born wanderers of the Earth; some had obviously been at variance with society, and the law.
As Mike paced outside the radio-building door, he thought of the ten big rocketships, and snorted. Freighters to Luna! They should have been pouring men and equipment into the outpost, rousing it to activity. . .
The door opened and a man looked out. “ Reply has come, Mr. Barry.”
“ Thanks.” Mike took the slip. The two hours waiting had been long but might well have been exceeded.
He turned on a heel and walked slowly down the sandstone road between the half-empty buildings. It could have been difficult to find the Counsellor who had dreamed, he thought. And more difficult, still, to convince him that no one was trying to make a fool of him. But Judy would have done her best.
In the shade of the building that he had walked into, and used without objection since arriving, he opened the slip. Sent in Morse to over-ride static and distance, it was as brief as he had expected.
“ He dreamt of a desert, and valley backed by sandstone cliffs.-Judy."
Mike stood for a long time, slowly crumpling the slip in his hand At last he turned in through the open door. The same, he thought There was only one mistake: dreamt was the wrong word.
Dim, slanting moonlight illuminated the dusty valley. The evening winds had gone, and the dancing pillars of dust subsided. No twinkle of firelight showed in any of the sandstone caves, nor moved any living thing in the patched wilderness.
In the desert a purpose stirred, awakening again. The purpose strove to create action -to move -and was suddenly upon the top of the ridge. The dusty valley lay below; ahead stretched a long, glimmering slope.
The purposive awareness strove again, failed, and fell back in upon itself. But not for long did it remain quiescent. Its awareness uncoiled, and was again upon the ridge. There it remained a little while, feeling around it the sensations of night. It knew that it was still in the desert; but its awareness was upon the ridge. It had striven to move, and was there, though no space had been traversed and no time had elapsed.
After a time it directed its awareness to the end of the ridge. It was upon the end of the ridge, cognizant, now, of new areas of the wilderness Time elapsed. It wished to withdraw, and was back. In the empty desert it sat under the twin moons. No minutest particle of dust had been disturbed by its going or return.
Beneath the awareness, the purpose increased, fundamental to it and always to be fulfilled. It strove, and was in green fields damp with spring dew. It saw tall trees and running water, and a little girl that walked behind a bunch of animals.
It followed the animals, slapping a stick upon the backs of those who were slow, and waving to a man who stood away across the field.
After moments its purpose failed. Again around it lay baked desert silent and empty. It tried to be upon the ridge, but could not, and relapsed back in upon itself.
“ So your- pals think the place haunted, so that they don’t go there much any more,” Mike said.
Gibson, sitting on the sand with his back to the wall, sucked in his weathered cheeks. “ Haunted is scarcely the word, but the nearest we can get to it. They look upon things differently. Mars is old, and wasn’t always dust. Beneath that dust lies uncounted generations of achievement, gone, now. Meacre is their word, and it doesn’t mean haunted. They’ve no word for that. They’re too old a race. All they say is, that anyone who goes along the ridge may suddenly find himself down on the desert, and as suddenly return. That’s all. So they keep away.”
Mike moved out from the shadow of the building. “ You ever- felt that? ”
There was a long pause
“ And this- this meacre has become much more frequent of late? ”
Gibson stirred the dust with a heel. “ They say so.”
He looked down the road and Mike followed his glance. A Martian was coming- one of the few who ever bothered to enter the Earthmen’s outpost. They did not keep away from fear, but indifference. The Earth-men had nothing they required. They were proud, too, Mike thought. The bearing of the one who approached showed it. Slight and short by Earth standards, he was aged. The appearance of age was deceptive, Mike knew. A Martian could come and go, aged but unchanging, while a man grew to maturity, relapsed into old age, and died.
The Martian’s loose garment swayed with his unhurried motion; his feet whispered on the sandy road. Gibson got up. “ He once lived on the ridge,” he murmured.
The old man halted, smiling. “ You are uneasy, Earthmen,” he said.
Gibson nodded. “ Perhaps, Resse. If so, it is because we are less wise.”
Resse inclined. “ If less wise, yet more strong.”
Mike remembered the conventions. “ You were undoubtedly strong in your youth, wise one.”
The Martian inclined again. “ Less so than you now are, Earthman.”
They were silent. Mike cleared his throat. “ I would ask you question.”
“ The answering will give me pleasure, Earthman.”
“ You once lived on the ridge by the sandstone cliffs? ”
Aged eyes glinted. Resse folded his hands under his garment. “I did."
“ Was there-- meacre before Earthmen came? ”
Resse looked out towards the desert. “ No. Never.”
Mike noticed the note of sadness in the voice. “ Your- past has been glorious,” he murmured.
The Martian’s eyes lit. “ Less glorious than can be your future, Earth-men. Yet- yes, glorious. In that past glory most of us now live.” He smiled. “ We wish to be there - and we are there. You understand.”
Resse shrugged. The shrug seemed to say that perhaps it was as well . . . that Mars was old, and its knowledge infinite, while Earth was young, and Earthmen’s knowledge small.
“ This- this meacre,” Mike pressed. “ What is it? What happens? ”
“ You have no word . . . It is that a man who walks upon the ridge may find himself upon the desert, looking at the spot he walks. I have felt it. I was upon the ridge, one evening. Then I was in the valley, looking up. Then, yet again, upon the ridge. My footsteps in the dust were unbroken.”
“ You have no explanation? There is no hint of it in your lore? ”
The silence grew. Gibson stirred. “ We are pleased to have talked with one so wise,” he said.
“ True and greatest wisdom lies in the ear of the listener.”
Robe swaying, he passed on along the sandy road, and from sight. Mike watched him go, consciously relaxing tension. Resse had a wisdom one with the age-old hills and eternal desert that stretched without end.
A man came out of the radio building, smoking. Seeing Mike, he waved a slip.
“ You get some odd messages! Suppose who pays thinks them worth it! ”
Mike took it, opening the paper. “ I dreamt I was in a dusty desert ending in sandstone cliffs.- Judy Metton.”
He drew in his breath and looked up. “ When will the next transport be arriving? ”
The man stopped at the door. “ Want to go back to earth?"
“ Just that.”
He jerked his head. “ Come in. We’ll look out the schedules for you."
Mike met Gibson’s eyes. Gibson nodded to himself. “ You’ll be back, he said.
Mike stepped out upon the fire-scarred concrete which was to him part of the green fields of Earth. The scarred surface seemed friendly, even, after the aridity of Mars. Judy Metton stood a little apart from a group of officers outside the site buildings.
She waved as Mike alighted from the motorised runabout. “ Didn’t expect you back this soon.”
“ There are things I want to look into.”
He examined her keenly. She was tired- but it might mean nothing. Unusually quiet, too. But perhaps that did not signify.
When they had passed out from the site, he pulled her arm through his. “This dream. Judy? ”
Her eyes turned seriously towards him. “ Just what I said in the spacegram. It seemed so real- frighteningly real.” Mike nodded. He had felt that way. There has been the committee room ... then the dusty sands of Mars . . . then once again the committee room.
“ It was a desert, with a dried-up valley,” she said. “Behind were high sandstone cliffs-"
“ I know.”
She halted. “ That’s not all. There’s been others. A little girl, and her father. They felt strongly enough about it to tell neighbours, and some newsman picked up the story.” Fear was in her eyes. “ What is it, Mike? What happens? Why? ”
He pressed her arm, unable to answer.
An hour later, when they had eaten, he leaned back in his chair. His mind had been active and he had come to a new decision. He surveyed the other diners under thick brows, pensive. To most of them, Solar Union was only a name. Some would scarcely have heard of it. The initial enthusiasm of reaching Mars had waned when people saw there was to be no easy money, or large-scale colonisation. The decision to use the ten new ships to freight to Luna had stirred up no great interest. Life on Earth went on the same. Mike wondered whether that would always be so.
“ I’m, going to see Crofton and Williams,” he stated abruptly.
Judy’s brows rose. “ Them? The last pair I would think of! Why? ”
“ Just to see if we can get those ten ships on the way to Mars after all! ”
They slipped away from the murmur of voices. The streets were busy, as always. Watching the flowing faces, Mike wondered in how few minds was a curiosity to match his own. They would not have noticed that at least three people had had the same odd experience . . . and that that experience had coincided with the decision to keep the ten ships from Mars.
Crofton and Williams owned a huge block on the borders of the city. From its windows the rocketship site could be seen, and the nine silver spears that should have cleft space to Mars. Judy had pointed to them as he left her below.
“ One left last week to fetch Lunar ore.”
Mike rode a lift to a level far above the noise and dust of the streets. Sun streamed through long windows and office personnel came and went, some glancing at him curiously.
The girl in the outer office recognised him but hesitated. “ I-I’m not sure that Mr. Crofton or Mr. Williams will wish to see you, Mr. Barry.”
“ Try them.” he said. “ Tell them it matters.”
He waited, wondering what he would do if they refused. After a long time she came back, her face red. “ They’re willing to spare a few moments,” she said.
He passed through the frosted door, an inner office, and emerged into a room he knew well. The pair sat behind their great double desk. Crofton’s arms were folded across his chest, and his eyes had a peculiar expression behind his glasses. Williams sat with one leg crossed high over the other, his chin on his hand and his elbow on the arm of his chair.
“ We’ve no work for you, Barry,” Crofton said.
Mike stood in front of the desk with his hands in his coat pockets He wondered whether they had called him in to insult him.
“ I’m not looking for it, at present.”
Crofton looked at Williams, and back, his glasses glinting at the motion.
“ We’re busy men, Barry.”
“ Not too busy to hear my proposition.” Mike looked them both over. “ You know as well as I do that I didn’t want those ships turned into freighters for Luna! ”
Williams unwound himself and sat up, eagle-eyed and long-faced.
“ We know nothing of the kind! It seems most unlikely, bearing in mind your conduct at the meeting! ”
Mike knew that his task would be difficult. “ I want to get that decision reversed. I’d like to see these ten ships on the way to Mars-”
Crofton grunted. “ Nine ships.”
“ Nine, then. There’s space on Mars for colonists- for men who will work, who don’t want a soft job, but rather take pride in seeing a hard job done well.”
Williams got up. “ Who paid you to come here, Barry? ”
Mike let his retort pass. “ The three of us, together, might succeed.”
Crofton leaned forward and tapped his blotter. “ You remember what you said, Barry? Let me remind you! We’d be shipping people to almost certain death. Yes, your words! It was twenty years too early to think of colonising Mars. It would be folly to rush in until after proper scientific exploration.” He snorted. “And a lot more--”
Mike bit a lip. “ Those statements are not true! ”
“ True or false, the public has heard them. They were big news for weeks. Have you thought of that! Even given permission to take the ships to Mars, they’d go empty, unless we paid people to board them! Anyone who’s read or heard your masterly speech now looks upon Mars as purgatory, and upon anyone fool enough to go there as listed among the damned! ”
He subsided, fuming, and Mike was silent. It was that bad, he thought. He hadn’t realised.
Williams tapped the desk. “ We don’t know what your plan is coming here, but wager it’s one that would be no good to us! We’ve been betrayed once.” He drew in his cheeks. “ Yes, betrayed, Barry! By you. We expected your support. You had promised it. With that support, those ten ships would be loading for Mars. Even had you kept silent,
we might have succeeded. But you didn’t..."
“ I tell you it was a mistake! ” Mike exploded. It was impossible to be silent. “ I’d like to see those ships away to Mars! ”
Williams sat down with an air of finality. “ Go to hell,” he said.
Mike put his palms on the edge of the desk. “ You won’t help me-? ”
Crofton glared at him. “We want nothing to do with you! We’ve found it doesn’t pay! ”
Williams swore terribly. “ Go to the devil, Barry! ” He smote the desk. “ Get out or I’ll ring for men who’ll throw you out! ”
“ Get out! ”
“ Very well, if that’s the way you want it.”
He turned and strode stiffly out, not looking back or to either side. The girl in the outer office did not speak as he passed.
Hell, he thought. Yet he knew that he could blame neither of the pair ...
Resse stood in the dusty solitude with his back to the scorching sun. His shadow stretched, clear cut as if inked, away towards barren, distant hills. One with the eternal desert, he let his mind stretch back and away in the manner decreed in the ageless lore of his ancestors. The dry desert faded, and water was sparkling in the network of irrigation-ways that stretched from pole to equator. A city that had not yet collapsed into the dust upon which he had stood arose around him, and he walked amid stately buildings.
Robe flowing, he traversed corridors paved with coloured marble, and passed through an arched doorway into a chamber where an aged one sat. Eyes the same hue met; features cast from the same mould smiled.
Resse inclined. “ I find you with pleasure, revered father.”
Resse sat upon a delicately-carved chair. “ I have come a long way, father- many years. I am afraid.”
The aged one bent his head. “ For what? ”
“ For strange things that are upon our planet in my own time in the years to come. Once this planet belonged to us. It was so in my earlier years. Now. it is not so.”
“ The past is always ours. We can always return to it, re-living our past glory.” He gestured. Sunshine streamed through stained windows and somewhere music played. “ Stay, then, with us.”
Resse rose jerkily and crossed to an opened window. He shook his head. “ Too many of us have already flown from the fears of our own times, seeking safety in the past. I have come to speak with you, not to stay.”
He was silent, looking down into the street. A youthful crowd passed, singing. Two aircraft murmured overhead, arrowing into the eye of the sun. He set his back to the window.
“ I am pleased you stay here, father. You are old. But I wish to live out my life in those years into which I was born.”
They were silent while the singing faded from the sun-warmed air. The aged one sighed.
“ Tell me of your fear, son.”
Resse thought for a long time before replying. “ Mars is no longer ours. We shall not fade as the moisture goes, until both race and planet are dead. Instead, we are to be dispossessed.”
“ You speak of the Earthmen--? ”
“ No.” Resse’s eyes sparkled. “ They are strangers to this planet- but not to this galaxy. They would not dispossess us of our heritage. Instead, they would bring water to our deserts and green again to our arid hills. We know many things of which they do not dream; but they have many sciences of which we do not know. With them they would help us.” He breathed deeply, shuddering. “ It is not them. They are of our solar system. They are strangers, but not alien. They are as people who have come from an adjoining city. It is not them . . .”
The aged one’s eyes were puzzled, afraid. “ Then what, son? ”
Resse listened for long moments to a single young voice singing. “ It is- something not of Mars,” he said. “ Something not of Earth. Something, I think, not of this galaxy. With it has come a strange meacre, that grows more frequent every day.”
His father drew his robe closely around himself. “ It has come since the Earthmen? ”
“ It is of them- is something we do not understand, but brought by them . . ”
. “ No.” Resse’s voice rang with conviction. “ It is not of Earth. It is- alien.”
“ Stay with us here, then.”
Resse shook his head. “ I shall not desert the years into which I was born, though the wisdom of our ancestors make that possible. I feel this alien thing that has come is one of immense power. Even here may not remain safe. I wished to warn you. That is all.”
“ Your coming has been to me both joy and glory.”
“ But to me tenfold so.”
Resse let his mind drift in the way he had been taught. It accorded with the passing moments; with the passing years and millennia... He stood upon an arid desert with the sun at his back and the waterways were dry, and the buildings part of the dust upon which he stood.
He sighed, turning off across the dunes. Far away to his right, just visible as a smudge upon the horizon, was the ridge and the caves where he had lived. He turned his feet from it, shuddering. The terrifying meacre had been much, much more frequent of late . . .
Haggerty stood up with finality. “ I’m sorry, Mr. Barry. I can’t support you.”
Mike kept the despair from his face until he had reached the street. Haggerty’s refusal had been no less definite than that of Crofton and Williams. There had been suspicion on the jovial face; mistrust in the cheerful eyes.
“ You’ve become rather an- outcast among us, Barry,” he had said.
That summed it up well, Mike thought. No one trusted him, now.
He turned his steps towards his last address. Bright daylight globes strung high illuminated the city. Neons flashed, spelling eye-catching slogans, and evening crowds were thick upon the streets. He boarded a passenger subway vehicle side by side with a big man in a grey suit, and they sped below ground level. Mike sat with his face glum. Samuel Carlton was his last hope.
Stations whisked behind, and they shot up into the open air once more. Mike alighted, walked a block, and ascended in a lift that bore him into a quieter world of elegant luxury. A servant answered his ring, and finally took him in. Samuel Carlton, smoking and in a creamy white suit, rose as the door closed.
“ This is unexpected, Barry.”
Mike realised that he must make his points as concisely as possible. He smiled slightly.
“ So I’m finding. Old friends soon forget old faces- sometimes. But I can at least expect a civil hearing, here.”
Carlton acknowledged the words. “ What do you want? ”
“ To open full-scale contact with Mars. To get those nine ships that are left loaded with colonists. To open up the planet, as the first men who risked their lives to get there intended-”
“ To make flower a wilderness-”
Mike wondered whether Samuel Carlton would support him. Together they might eventually accomplish something.
Carlton sat on the arm of his chair. “ A commendable aim but surely adopted too late.”
“ It need not be too late! ”
Carlton exhaled smoke pensively. “ People who have helped you in the past have found it- to their undoing.”
Mike felt his hope ebb. No one would trust him. He met his host’s eyes.
“ I can explain.”
“ So Crofton and Williams informed me by phone scarcely an hour ago,” Carlton observed flatly.
Mike knew that he had failed. “ Crofton and Williams?"
“ Yes. They explained at some length.”
“ I see.”
Mike turned on a heel and left the suite, descended, and stood feeling utterly alone while the tide of people flowed round him. There was no help to be had on Earth.
He walked on, seeking less-frequented ways. The glowing heart of the city slipped away behind; the lights became less closely-spaced and brilliant. He walked for half an hour in black despair, then became conscious that other feet followed him. He halted at a corner and looked back. A big man in a grey suit, tall, with a round face, stood under a lamp. His one hand seemed oddly placed. A shock ran through Mike from head to toe. With it came realisation. He drew back, setting the corner of the building behind him. Something sang against the stone, whining on. Particles spattered his face and clothing.
He ran quickly and lightly for the next corner. It was farther than the distance his follower had to traverse. He flung himself round it with a noise like a wasp in his ear, and doubled into an open doorway. There, he stood in shadows. The man ran past, a needle-gun in one hand. His steps echoed, then halted. Came silence, then they began to return.
Mike moved soundlessly to a position behind the door. A shadow came in the dimly-lit doorway, hesitated, and came through. Mike wrapped strong arms around him and forced the weapon from his hand. The man twisted round, his eyes glinting in the reflected light. Mike released him. He was a stranger. Mike thought of his near escape from death.
"You made a mistake? ” he snapped
The man withdrew from reach. “ I’m not paid to make mistakes."
Paid, Mike thought. A hired assassin! But by whom? Not jovial Haggerty. Certainly not Samuel Carlton. By big-businessmen who felt themselves betrayed, and about to be betrayed again, in some way they did not understand . . .?
"Crofton and Williams? ” Mike grated
The big man withdrew through the door. “ Guess if it gives you fun, he growled. His steps sounded to the corner, then were gone.
Speed counted, Mike thought. He slipped the other way, taking random corners. Once he thought he heard feet following, heavy and quick. At last he reached crowded streets and some of his tension relaxed. There was, after all, one more place to call. Judy Metton.
The dark, serious and wise eyes remained fixed upon his face. “They must feel badly to try to kill you, Michael.”
“ They’ve had reason.” He looked from her window down into the lit street. “ I’d heard rumours that Williams could be tough, though I’d never seen evidence of it before.”
People passed. If the big man in the grey suit were among them, he was unseen. It was late and the city was drifting into the hush that would last until dawn. Mike turned round.
“ I’ve come to a dead end here, Judy. No one trusts me enough to help me get those ships to Mars. I’m an outcast- a traitor. I read that in Haggerty’s eyes. They don’t remember how much work I put into those ten ships, or how much I stood to lose. Instead, they think I’d schemed to get their capital tied up in a useless project. I can’t blame them. It looks that way.”
He moved away from the window. Judy Metton got up and stood near him.
“ You haven’t given up, Michael. You’re not that sort. Nor the kind to be scared off.” She smiled, quiet, serious, beautiful. “ What shall you do? ”
"There’s only one thing."
"And that-? "
“ Try from the other end- from the Mars end. The next provision ship will have me as passenger.”
She nodded, understanding in her eyes. “ I guessed. And I’m expecting that ship to have passenger space for two - ”
Gibson screwed up his eyes against the sun and the hot brilliance of the desert, and pointed. “There’s the ridge, Miss Metton.”
Mike saw tension and eagerness- and perhaps fear-- on her face. The note of the sand-truck rose and fell rhythmically as it mounted the billowing dunes that stood like the swell of some petrified brown sea. Dust half sand and half dry, pulverised earth drifted behind. The metal of the truck was hot to touch, and the engine roared and sang as the wheels sank half to axle level.
“ Better make for one end of the ridge,” Gibson said.
Mike turned the vehicle to the left, watching for a spot in the crumbled spine that must once have been a mountain range. Pillars of dust danced on the hazy, wavering horizon, sometimes twirling high into the cloudless heavens.
“ How long has it been like this? ” Judy murmured.
Gibson shrugged and scratched a wrinkled cheek. “ Five thousand years? Ten? I’ll wager no water’s run down that valley for longer than that! When the water’s gone, nothing remains. The plants die, and the people. The cities fall and everything grows flat, like a seashore the tide’s covered.” He grunted heavily. “ It’s like this most other places. I’ve been about anywhere on this planet that any Earthman has. It’s all the same- dry, dusty, arid, except where there’s rock. The rocks stick like dead things out of the sand . . .”
The truck began to murmur up the end slopes of the ridge and the edge of the desert beyond came into view. Looking across it, Mike saw that it was flat as a tray of shaken sand- except for one point. There, a low dune broke the even brown sea. Diffused, almost lost, it was nevertheless visible. Gibson followed his gaze.
“ That’s where Forsythe’s calculator stood.”
Mike nodded. A building could have been there, soon to collapse and be covered by the wind-driven sands.
“ We’ll look around,” he said.
Judy’s eyes held curiosity. “ What exactly was this calculator? ”
“ I checked up on that before leaving Earth. Forsythe was an old man when he came here, and has been dead these ten years. He’d been head of a manufacturing concern and had money. He tried to get permission to build this calculator on Earth, but failed. So he had the idea of shipping the whole thing out here, and no one stopped him. He spent a fortune, and it was a failure. If the building down there had been more durable, it would stand monument to his folly. As it is, the whole thing is as good as forgotten.”
She thought for a long time. “ You don’t think it ties in with what’s happened? ”
“ No. I don’t see that it can.”
They went into the dip that had once been a watercourse, and rolled up out of it to the desert plain. The sand-filled channel was almost a mile behind when Mike halted the vehicle. The dune that marked Forsythe’s folly was twenty yards to their right.
“This is it,” July breathed.
She was looking at the sandstone ridge, her face startled. He nodded. This was the view he had seen.
“ It’s rather- terrifying,” she said.
He turned his back on the sandstone ridge. It was. As accurately as the eye could judge, he had stood upon this spot before-or within a score or so of paces from it. Yet he had never before set foot upon the desert.
They walked round the dune, and over it. In a few places the broken metal fabric of the building was still visible, drunken girders projecting through the sand.
“ It’s all buried in dust,” Gibson stated with conviction. “ There’s not a crack or a corner it wouldn’t reach.”
He scuffed in the dusty brown sand, grunted, stooped quickly and picked something up. His bleached blue eyes sparkled.
“ Ever see anything like that? ”
Mike took it. It had once been spherical, was heavy, and a foot in diameter. The surface was pitted and scarred as if by time or great heat, and so dented one side as to leave a jagged crack.
“ Something that belonged to a native,” Judy suggested.
Mike turned it over. “ Perhaps. I’ve never seen a yellowy metal like that before. I don’t think it can be anything Forsythe brought.”
Gibson stared at it. “ I’ve never seen metal like that on Mars, either. Shows there are things here even I haven’t met up with.”
Mike shook the object and sand came from the crack. The cavity inside must have been small, and the walls thick, judging by the weight. The fissure was too irregular to give a view of the interior.
“ We’ll see if Resse can identify it,” he suggested, and put it in the sand-truck.
Further exploration confirmed his first opinion. The rather fragile building that had housed Forsythe’s machine was a flattened ruin and the mechanisms that had stood within it were silted remains worthless to uncover.
“ Just a junk heap,” Gibson said as he boarded the truck.
Resse made the Martian gesture of negation. “ It is not an object made by my people. It is something the Earthman brought these many years ago.”
“ I don’t think so,” Mike objected. “ The metal is a strange one.”
Reese considered. “ It is unknown to me, also. It is no Martian metal.”
“ Perhaps it is something from Forsythe’s machine,” Judy suggested.
They stood by the truck in the shade of the outpost buildings. Mike frowned. No one could identify the object. If Resse had never seen its like, it was not Martian. Yet he would swear that no similar, yellowy metal had ever been made on Earth. Unless, as Judy suggested, it was something specially fabricated by the man who had lost a fortune and died regretting it.
“ I’m going to have it sent back to Earth, first chance, and classified," he said abruptly. “ I’m no metallurgist, and may be wrong.”
Resse sighed deeply. “ May your wisdom bring you a glorious future." He turned quietly away.
“ I’d give a lot to know the things he knows,” Gibson said when they were alone. “ We may be clever with machinery and the like, but some of these Martians know things we don’t dream of. I’ve heard rumours. I lived for a year an’ more with some of them, out by the ridge. They told me one night that they were going. Next morning, the lot had gone -never saw a trace of ’em again--”
“ Gone? Where?” Mike frowned.
“ Didn’t say. Their planet was too dry, they said. Every year it was growing harder to live. They didn’t want to stay. It hadn’t always been like this, they said. Once was prosperity, with water, and many of their fellows in happy cities. Next morning the lot had gone- the whole fifty odd of ’em, with never so much as a mark in the sand to show where.”
He wrinkled his face in perplexity and they were silent.
“ There were quite a number of Martians about when the first ships landed.” Mike said.
Gibson pulled his stubbled chin “ Thousands. But they’ve gone. Where? They haven’t died. They’ve just spirited themselves away! There have been others, too, an’ I never seen a one of ’em since! ” He spat in the dust and buried his hands in his coat pockets. “ That there Resse knows things as no Earthman will ever know,” he stated.
Mike watched him until he had entered the building he had appropriated.
“ You think there’s truth in what he says? ” Judy asked.
Mike listened to the silence. “ Probably. Many natives have gone, but we don’t know where. It’s an older world than Earth, and strange things have happened even back there.”
He left it at that. Gibson had lived with the Martians and could have heard of things which had not reached other human ears. Mars was old with wisdom. Much had perished, but the important learning- the valued knowledge- would have been saved . . .
He thought again of the ten great ships that should have unloaded by the half-deserted outpost.
“ This time is bigger than I thought, Judy,” he said. “ It’s going to take time-”
He got into the truck, reversing. Vehicles left unprotected usually became choked with the gritty dust that rose whenever wind blew. It was going to take time.
The purposive intelligence in the desert grew hourly more active. Not requiring rest, day and night were alike to it, and with each rising and setting of the sun its experience had grown. It did not see the dancing pillars of dust which came soon after dawn, but had knowledge of their presence by a strange cognizance disassociated from that of vision or hearing. When darkness came, its awareness of every detail of the surrounding terrain was not diminished.
Soon it found that it could only be rarely upon the ridge. Spatial distance meant nothing, and it walked more often through green fields and rode through populous cities. Wholly and keenly aware, it could only endure to remain in one place for a short temporal span. Sometimes, when it looked out upon a scene of exceptional interest, it remained there, not wishing itself back into the desert. But often it flitted from viewpoint to viewpoint, remaining mere moments. Each viewpoint brought its own special and individual awareness, and the entity knew that it was each time in the consciousness of some mobile organism. Sometimes the organisms were lowly, moving secretly in dark places, experiencing only the vibration and tenor of deep waters, or the smells of the earth, and it soon learned to avoid them. It sought more intelligent organisms, and in their mobility and knowledge found joy. Again and again it looked through their eyes and spoke with their voices, learning in the first instant of possession the whole content of their conscious and unconscious minds. Often it was purposive; sometimes it contradicted their wishes in mere idle and sportive jest.
As the sun rose and fell, and rose and fell again, its purpose grew. The all-important desire to remain in existence asserted itself, and it longed to preserve its quiet haven in the desert. It had lodged in cruel minds that never knew rest or content, and flown at last from a torrid planet circling a hot binary sun. Now, it knew that its means of physical travel through the dangerous radiations of space was destroyed, and that for the remainder of its life, while stars waxed and waned, it must abide upon the spot where by chance it had arrived.
A man with round boyish cheeks, and eyes surrounded by the wrinkles left from smiling, walked out of the settling dust of the rocketship’s landing. He looked about, waved, and plodded forward, ankle-deep in the fine sand. Mike went to meet him.
“ Never been here before, Charlie? ”
Wylie shook his head. “ Been too busy all my life to go farther than Luna, But I’ll admit this is a thrill.”
“ I was surprised by the message that you were coming.”
Charles Wylie looked at him quickly. “ Wait until you hear my news!”
They walked into the settlement. Wylie washed and changed his clothes. Mike wondered what had brought him. They got out drinks and Wylie sat down. He looked over the top of his glass.
“ What are you up to, Mike? ”
Mike felt shocked by the tone of reproach. “ Up to? Nothing! Just trying to find what happens! ”
Wylie looked relieved. “ I’m glad to know it. A big scare has been developing on Earth these several weeks since you left. Folk think you’re at the back of it, or somehow responsible. Or so rumours say. I’ve heard from authoritative quarters that you’re likely to be shipped back and kept for official questioning. You look like being in trouble.”
Mike started. “ Why me? ”
“ Because this thing’s associated with Mars, and what’s associated with Mars is associated with you. Especially after that last lot of publicity.” Wylie set down his glass. “ For all I know, there may be people who have their own reasons for fostering the idea. When folk get scared they look for a scapegoat.”
“ I see.” Mike wished he had asked Judy to be there to hear what his friend had to say. “ And of what, exactly, are folk scared? ”
“ The 'possessions' as the most popular Sunday papers call them. They’re so frequent, so similar, that no one can ignore them. Cutting out the embellishments of the more imaginative accounts, each comes to about the same thing. It’s not much-”
'Mike nodded. “ Don’t tell me- I’ve experienced it.”
“ Then you’ll know it’s enough to scare folk. And folk are scared.” Wylie grimaced. “ More than scared-terrified! The thing’s been made a national sensation.” He took out a crumpled sheet, tapping it. “ Possessive Demon strikes again. ‘ I was just preparing supper,’ woman says, interviewed late last night-”
Mike took it, read it, and screwed it into a ball. “Sensational news sells copy,” he said. “ Especially when there’s an element of truth.”
Wylie sighed. “ I agree.” He produced a small clipping. “ This is from a different class of paper- one to respect. Is sacked rocket technician and expert on Mars behind these happenings . . .? ” He held out the cutting. “ That means you.”
Mike did not take it. “ There’s enough feeling to get me taken back and jailed? ”
“ More than enough.Held for official questioning, they would say-”
“ The same thing! ” Mike turned and gazed out into the sandy road. He had not thought the thing would grow like that, making him a wanted man. Nor had he imagined that people on Earth would be made afraid .
A man was coming along the dusty road from the radio building. He looked in curiously, halting. “ A message for you. And long. Someone certainly has money to spend! ”
Mike slit it and read. “ The spherical object sent by you has been fully investigated. It contained vestiges of mechanical and electrical devices of advanced design but unknown purposes. The atomic structure of the materials in it, and forming it, are unknown to Earth. No investigator has encountered them on Mars. They are assumed to be an isotope of alien nature. You are asked to forward the fullest possible details covering the discovery of the object.”
Mike stood as if stone. An alien metal. He slowly folded the message not speaking.
“ You’ve gone white,” Charles Wylie said.
“ Maybe, Charlie. Maybe.”
Mike stood on the edge of the desert, gazing into the wide, aged eyes.
“ You are- going back? ” he repeated.
Resse inclined his head. “ Our years here are ended, Earthman. We are afraid and there is no peace. We who remain grow more lonely. In the years of our past are peace, safety and companionship.”
Mike remembered Gibson’s words. On Mars were indeed things unknown to Earth.
“ But this- going back? ” he insisted.
“ It is a thing known to us for many thousand years. We are an old race. It is a regression back into the civilised era of ourselves. The mind is accorded with the past. It is complex, yet explicable.”
Mike felt his intense interest quicken yet more. “ An Earthman could do it? ”
Resse considered long, his gaze fixed upon the distant wilderness. He gestured assent. “ Why do you ask? ”
“ It is something we have never known, on Earth.”
Resse drew his robe close. “ Even I am afraid to stay. I go to gather those few treasured possessions I would not leave. The mind accords them with the past, and they are there. You understand.”
“ No,” Mike said flatly. He looked across the desert at the setting sun. Soon would come the deep, still night. “ Will you show me? ”
Breath held, he waited. He wondered whether Resse would wish to keep secret the ancient knowledge, handed down from times immemorial. Perhaps. Perhaps, again, no Earthman could understand .
Resse’s gaze came searchingly upon his face. “Show you? ” he murmured at last. “ Yes, I will show you. I see no harm in it. Be warned, it will not be easy.” He looked at the setting sun. “ You could know, by dawn. It is an awareness, an identification of what is with what has been ...” He hesitated.
“ Yes? ” Mike breathed.
He waited. The low sun gave long shadows to the dunes. The heat was going. Never had Mars seemed so old, so wise. Resse did not move until the last limb of the sun had gone.
“ Come with me into the desert,” he said.
A week passed and Mike saw that a crisis would come. An official radiograph from Earth requested that he hold himself ready to return by the next vessel. Resse and his companions were infrequently seen. Two days after he had taken Mike into the desert he entered the settlement and bid them a formal good-bye. “ My companions await,” he said. He did not reappear. Mike thought of the past glory into which Resse had taken him, and understood. There, Resse and his companions were safe from the strange and terrifying meacre.
Mike hunted through the empty settlement buildings and found explosives that some mining expert, long since gone, had never used. He loaded them into the sand-truck with Wylie’s help.
“ I’m going to blow the remains of Forsythe’s calculator to dust, Charlie,” he said. “ This trouble seems to centre on that spot.”
Judy Metton came along to the waiting truck. “ You mentioned a man who tried to shoot you, Mike,” she said.
“ I did.”
“ I’ve seen him.”
He experienced a shock. “ Here? ”
“ Yes. He’s been keeping out of our way. Watching us, most likely A big man, tall, with a round face-"
“ That fits,” Mike agreed.
"Then you’d best take care ." “ He could have shipped in with me," Wylie said. “ There were half a dozen of us. One man kept to his berth. Space-sickness, they said.” Mike got into the truck and started its engine. “ Thanks. I’ll be watching for him.” He refused to let either come and set out across the undulating dunes. The buildings of the outpost faded from view behind, and at last the ridge appeared in the dancing haze. He drove to its low end, halting the truck. The desert lay below, shimmering with heat. The far horizon shifted and wavered, barely distinguishable from a mirage of brown sandy wastes that gleamed above it. Central in the arid wilderness was the tump. Gazing at it, Mike’s lips compressed. Some damnable, inexplicable thing had there made its home . . He started the truck and turned it down towards the sandy plain.
The vehicle rose and fell over the hillocks. He shaded his eyes against the almost overwhelming heat and brilliance, driving with one hand. The explosives should be piled upon that infernal tump, he thought, and then detonated. The thing that rested there should be destroyed . . .
The sand-truck whirred on, wheels deep. This is what he should have done weeks before, he thought. The thing in the tump was an enemy- must always be an enemy, because of its alien nature.
He wiped perspiration from his eyes with the back of a hand, accelerating as the wheels slipped. He felt triumphant, confident.
Then the whine of the engine ceased; the feel of the wheel under his fingers was gone. He seemed to be standing in the middle of the dessert, his consciousness identified with that of something no longer in the truck. The truck was half a mile away across the hot sand . . . it turned in a quick curve, heading back towards the ridge. He felt powerless, as if time had ceased, taking with it conscious will. He seemed to watch the truck, fascinated, as it climbed the shimmering end of the ridge.
Then the engine thundered in his ears and the wheel kicked under his hands. “ Hell,” he said.
He braked, stopping amid drifting dust and looking back. He was upon the ridge and the desert looked remote and distant, away below.
“ Not that easy! ” he grated.
He turned the truck and took it bouncing down the slopes. Engine roaring, wheels churning sand, it sang to the edge of the desert . . .
From the centre of the desert he watched it turn, almost tipping over, and ascend the dusty hills. Deep in the centre of his mind something cried out as if imprisoned by a will stronger than his own. While that will and consciousness was identified with his own, something of its terrible purpose seeped through to him. It wished to dominate: that was its nature. In its long past it had dealt with organisms more able to resist than he . . . and triumphed. It always triumphed. It always dominated. It was invulnerable . . .
The identification of mind with something akin to mind but not of flesh and blood ceased. He was bouncing in the truck down the other side of the ridge, his clothing adhering to his body. He slowed the vehicle, trembling.
It could not be done. A will stronger than his would always gain control and make him turn back.
Slowly, almost like a broken man, he drove the sand-truck back to the half-empty settlement.
Judy Metton and Wylie stood with their backs to the window of the shaded room.
"It was- that bad? ” Wylie asked.
Mike nodded, shaken still. “ I see, now, why Resse and the others have gone. I don’t blame them. I’d go myself- if there was anywhere to go.”
"To- -Earth,” Judy suggested.
“ No. Mere interplanetary distances don’t seem to count.” He prepared a drink and saw that his hands still shook. He pushed the plastic tray round with one finger. “ It turned me back- just like that,” he said.
Wylie opened one of the shutters and looked into the street, and at the sky. He withdrew his head, returning the shutter to cut off the sun.
“ It turned you back to protect itself,” he said.
“ Without doubt.”
“ Suppose there was a simultaneous attack by a number of us? ”
“ I don’t think it would work. It could deal with a large number in quick succession- might even guide individuals to self-destruction.” Mike considered. “ No, I don’t think it would work.”
Wylie nodded slowly. “ No, I don’t think it would-”
Mike looked up, attention quickened by something odd in the tone. " What do you mean? ”
“ That it seems to have turned aside something else, already.” Wylie came forward into the room, and Mike saw that his face had paled. He felt a shock.
“ Turned aside something else, Charlie . . .? ”
“ Yes.” Wylie drew in his cheeks and years seemed to settle upon him. "The spaceship is overdue.”
In the frizzling darkness the crew swore, shouting wildly for the captain who had turned the rocketship sunwards and blasted at 5 Gs until it was too late. They raved for the electrician who had fused the ship’s circuits, accomplishing in five minutes of madness damage that would take a week to repair. There would be no week . . . nor yet seven hours of remaining life for them. Some screamed as the slow rotation of the ship brought sunlight through the ports, and staggered back as from an opened furnace door. Below, awesome in size, terrible in heat, and mighty in gravitational pull, loomed the sun. The walls sizzled where the rays touched . . . then as the slow rotation continued, sweating men wept in the searing dark, uselessly fighting each other.
Mike listened in the still, Martian night. Complete silence lay over dunes that were faintly silver with dim moonlight. If feet still moved in pursuit, they did so soundlessly.
He went on, thinking of the ten days that had passed since the rocketship became overdue. At first they had hoped that she would appear, or break her radio silence. Later, they had abandoned hope. The full
significance had only become apparent slowly-Mars was isolated. No more ships would call. No vessel would bring stores, or come to fetch men home. Ships might try, but each would be turned aside, probably to destruction. In ten days the truth had sunken deep into the heart of everyone in the outpost. Already some stores were short. Mike knew that subsistence could not be scratched out of the arid planet upon which they were marooned. Death was certain. To him it could come more violently and quickly.
He paused to listen, and heard footsteps scrape momentarily on out-cropping rock. A form came round boulders at his left. He bent double and a whisper floated over to him.
"This is Judy ."
He rose, facing her. “ You should stay with the others. There’s a chance-”
“ You know there’s no chance. No ship will ever get here.”
“ But at least you could avoid death the violent way,” he urged. If they find you with me . . .”
He did not need to end, and she nodded. “ They’re fools to panic.”
“ It’s the loss of the ship,” he said, “ and the news from Earth. That, and the message saying I was to be imprisoned. They’ve pieced together enough to hate me, and feel they’ve reason for it.”
“ Aided by the man Crofton and Williams put on your trail."
In the distance three men appeared momentarily against the skyline. Nearer, away to the right, a voice called and another answered.
“ I need ten minutes,” Mike said. “ Just ten minutes! ”
From her eyes he knew that she did not understand. He gripped her arm and they went along a depression, silent as shadows on the sand. He stopped.
“ Don’t speak to me, don’t interrupt me . . . when they come, say you haven’t seen me.”
“ Time is short,” he said.
He turned his back upon her and put from his mind all thought of the following men. Ahead was a silvery wilderness, dune upon dune like a frozen sea. The agelessness of it- the timelessness-- swept into his mind . . . he felt that each moment was accorded with the birth and death of universe, and that suns were created and cooled while a single timeless instant fled. Years came and went and were not, and had never been; the mind-created sequence of hours stood revealed as the illusion it was . . . a sequence created for convenience- a mere habit of thought.
His mind encompassed growing periods of time, his eyes looking back as if along a road his feet had trod. Beyond were longer ages, and all were one. Tall towers rose out of the arid desert. Water sparkled in channels. and voices sang.
He walked down the mosaic-paved streets and into a building he had been shown only once, but would never forget.
Resse rose, inclining. “ My pleasure is great, Earthman.”
Mike hesitated. “ I trespass? ”
“ Never trespasses welcomed guest.”
They passed through into an inner room and Resse sat upon a marble bench.
“ What purpose brings you? ”
Mike fixed his gaze upon the sincere, aged face. “ A few words you once said.”
“ They were? ”
“ That you and your companions would bring here a- few prized objects . ."
Mike stood listening in the desert and started as a shadow came as from nowhere
“ I’ve been waiting,” Judy whispered.
He faced her. “ How long? The men have gone? "
“ Two hours or more. They’re still searching.”
The moon was high, making shadows small. He looked from it at the surrounding dunes, quiet now, but perhaps concealing searching men.
“ I want you to know what Resse told me,” he said. “ Then we must go out to the desert beyond the ridge.”
“ Yes? ” She stood motionless, waiting.
Side by side they went over the end of the ridge. The desert lay below and Mike’s gaze turned instinctively upon the hillock in its centre. He shivered. Under that hillock were the remains of Forsythe’s calculator. Forsythe had created something akin to brain- and in that pseudo-brain the alien intelligence had lodged.
Judy hesitated and looked back. “ Thought I heard someone following . . .”
They listened. The stillness was unbroken. Mike feared that what he was to attempt would fail.
“ We had thought of it, Earthman, but dared not try,” Resse had said.
Judy took Mike’s hand and they went down the slope into the long- abandoned watercourse. Ankle deep in sand, they ascended its farther side.
“ I’ll - try to help,” Judy whispered.
Be that help ever so slight, it might be decisive, Mike thought. They did not know the potential of the opposition they would have to face.
Suddenly he felt her grip tighten. She halted, releasing his arm. Her eyes were glazed, fixed upon something unreal. She turned from him, half stumbling, and began to hasten back towards the ridge. He took a quick pace after her.
She did not pause or look back. Hand outstretched to call again, Mike was silent.
Thus it had been when he had brought the truck ladened with explo- sives, he thought. The thing in the tump was protecting itself.
He compressed his lips. He would be next! Just as soon as the alien thought came to bear upon him, the struggle would begin.
“ It would be helpful to you to be close, Earthman,” Resse had said.
Judy was almost gone from view. He turned and began to run out into the desert, feet slipping in the loose dust. He was half way between watercourse and hillock when the first awnings of the strangeness that he had before experienced began to come into his mind.
He halted as if abruptly stone, striving for the peace and the timeless- ness of Resse’s wisdom to enter his mind. The desert seemed ageless, silvery and silent. The same stars had looked down while uncounted aerons ran . . . a million years before, desert and ridge had been there, even if then grass-grown and clear cut.
Behind the dawning peace, striving to break his accord with the past, arose another intelligence. Alien, strange, wordless, it strove to destroy his increasing rapport, ravening to gain control of his mind. Behind the ferocity of it.s onslaught lay the overwhelming desire for self-preservation. He strove to accord it with the timeless past, bringing to bear all his consciousness so that his mind ached, recoiling as from physical agony.
For a fearful instant he felt as if split in two. He was man, yet an alien consciousness that experienced terror. With the last of his remaining will, he struggled to fling back into past ages the part that was not him. With a snap as of physical impact the conflict ceased. For an instant he felt himself kneeling upon the sands, then awareness fled, and with it all hope of success.
Mike awoke to find the warmth of morning sun on his face. Wylie was bending over him. He stirred, and saw that he had been carried back over the ridge.
“ Thought you were finished,” Wylie observed. Mike looked from the kindly, critical eyes, and saw Judy. “ I-- failed?" he whispered.
She did not answer. Wylie stood up and looked about him. “ We can’t stay here for ever, Mike. Now daylight’s come they’ll begin search ing again.”
Mike struggled to his feet. “ I must see over the ridge! ”
Wylie swore. “ I found you flat in the desert there, and you’re not going back! ”
“ I am going back,” Mike stated. “ I must- see.”
He began to walk shakily towards the ridge. Judy followed.
He shook her off. “ I must see! ”
Wylie came after them, face resigned. “ What was it you tried to do? I gathered some of it from Judy.”
Mike did not look back. “ Resse and his companions could take their belongings into the past. If that ruined, central core of Forsythe’s calculator had never been there, this thing that came would have found no lodging. But lodging it had. I looked upon Forsythe’s calculator- and anything it might house - as merely another object. That object could be thrown back millennia- so far, that it had mouldered to dust before the first Martian civilisation began . . .”
Breathless, he struggled on. The slope seemed long and steep. If he had succeeded, everything would be as it should, Mike thought. Colonists would come to Mars. The barren hills could be watered and verdant.
“ There’s a party of men coming up from the settlement,” Wylie said.
Mike looked back and knew that the three of them had been seen. Some of the men were breaking into a run, following.
He reached the highest point of the ridge and looked down. The desert lay silent, a deep brown in the sunshine. Already dust-devils were beginning to dance across its wastes.
Mike felt an unspeakable thankfulness. Behind, men’s voices were shouting.
“ Tell them- we’re all safe,” he breathed. He gazed down at the desert. The undulating irregularity of its surface was a motionless brown sea. It was worth trying, he thought. There was no damnable tump.
Francis G. Rayer.
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