"It's funny," I said after a while.
"You know what they say about the whispering. Sometimes when you listen intently you seem to hear words deep in your mind. As if the Martians had telepathic powers."
"Perhaps they have," she said.
I glanced sideways at her. "Remember," I said. "There were cities on Mars when our ancestors were hairy apes. The Martian civilization was flourishing and great fifty million years before the pyramids arose as a monument to human solidarity and worth. A bad monument, built by slave labor. But at least it was a start."
"Now you're being poetic, Tom," she said.
"Perhaps I am. The Martians must have had their pyramids too. And at the pyramid stage they must have had their Larsens, to shoulder all the guilt. To them we may still be in the pyramid stage. Suppose--"
"Suppose they wanted to warn us, to give us a lesson we couldn't forget. How can we say with certainty that a dying race couldn't still make use of certain techniques that are far beyond us."
"I'm afraid I don't understand," she said, puzzled.
"Someday," I said, "our own science will take a tiny fragment of human tissue from the body of a dead man, put it into an incubating machine, and a new man will arise again from that tiny shred of flesh. A man who can walk and live and breathe again, and love again, and die again after another full lifetime.
"Perhaps the Martian science was once as great as that. And the Martians might still remember a few of the techniques. Perhaps from our human brains, from our buried memories and desires, they could filch the key and bring to horrible life a thing so monstrous and so terrible--"
Her hand went suddenly cold in mine. "Tom, you can't honestly think--"
"No," I said. "It's nonsense, of course. Forget it."
I didn't tell her what the whispering had seemed to say, deep in my mind.
We've brought you Larsen! You wanted Larsen, and we've made him for you! His flesh and his mind--his cruel strength and his wicked heart! Here he comes, here he is! Larsen, Larsen, Larsen!
MY SHIPMATE-COLUMBUS By Stephen Marlowe
We've been taught from childhood that the earth is round and that Columbus discovered America. But maybe we take too much on faith. This first crossing for instance. Were you there? Did you see Columbus land? Here's the story of a man who can give us the straight facts.
The laughter brought spots of color to his cheeks. He stood there for a while, taking it, and then decided he had had enough and would sit down. A whisper of amusement still stirred the room as he returned to his seat and the professor said, "But just a moment, Mr. Jones. Won't you tell the class what makes you think Columbus was not the 'bold skipper' the history books say he was. After all, Mr. Jones, this is a history class. If you know more or better history than the history books do, isn't it your duty to tell us?"
He clutched at his slashed veins and snarled into the face of death.
"I didn't say he wasn't," Danny Jones said desperately as the laughter started again. Some profs were like that, he thought. Picking on one student and making the rest of the class laugh and think what a great guy the prof was and what a prize dodo the hapless student was. "I said," Danny went on doggedly, "Columbus might not have been-maybe wasn't-the bold skipper the history books claim he was. I can't prove it. No one can. I haven't a time machine."
Again it was the wrong thing to say. The professor wagged a finger in front of his face and gave Danny a sly look. "Don't you," he said, "don't you indeed? I was beginning to think you had been willed H. G. Wells' famous literary invention, young man." That one had the class all but rolling in the aisles.
Danny said desperately, "No! No, I mean, they don't even know for sure if Columbus was born in Genoa. They just think he was. So they also could be wrong about-"
Abruptly the professor's face went serious. "My dear Mr. Jones," he said slowly, acidly, "don't you think we've had enough of fantasy? Don't you think we ought to return to history?"
Danny sat down and for a moment shut his eyes but remained conscious of everyone looking at him, staring at him, evaluating. It wasn't so easy, he decided, being a sophomore transfer student from a big city college, where almost everything went and there was a certain amount of anonymity in the very size of the classes, to a small town college where every face, after a week or so, was familiar. Danny wished he had kept his big yap shut about Columbus, but it was too late now. They'd be ribbing him for weeks....
On his way back to the dorm after classes he was hailed by a student who lived down the hall from him, a fellow named Groves, who said, "How's the boy, Danny. Next thing you'll tell us is that Cortez was really a sexy Spanish broad with a thirty-eight bust who conquered Montezuma and his Indians with sex appeal. Get it, boy. I said-"
"Aw, lay off," Danny grumbled.
The other boy laughed, then shrugged, then said, "Oh yeah, forgot to tell you. There's a telegram waiting for you in the dorm. House-mother's got it. Well, see you, Vasco da Gama."
Danny trudged on to the Georgian-style dormitory and went inside, through the lobby and behind the stairs to the house-mother's office at the rear of the building. She was a kindly-looking old woman with a halo of white hair and a smile which made her a good copy of everyone's grandmother. But now her face was set in unexpectedly grim lines. "Telegram for you, Danny," she said slowly. "They read it over the telephone first, then delivered it." She held out a yellow envelope. "I'm afraid it's some bad news, Danny." She seemed somehow reluctant to part with the little yellow envelope.
"What is it?" Danny said.
"You'd better read it yourself. Here, sit down."
Danny nodded, took the envelope, sat down and opened it. He read, MR. DANNY JONES, WHITNEY COLLEGE, WHITNEY, VIRGINIA. REGRET TO INFORM YOU UNCLE AVERILL PASSED AWAY LAST NIGHT PEACEFULLY IN HIS SLEEP LEAVING UNSPECIFIED PROPERTY TO YOU. It was signed with a name Danny did not recognize.
"I'm terribly sorry," the house-mother said, placing her hand on Danny's shoulder.
"Oh, that's all right, Mrs. Grange. It's all right. You see, Uncle Averill wasn't a young man. He must have been in his eighties."
"Were you very close to him, Danny?"
"No, not for a long time. When I was a kid-"
Mrs. Grange smiled.
"Well, when I was eight or nine, I used to see him all the time. We stayed at his place on the coast near St. Augustine, Florida, for a year. I-I feel sorry about Uncle Averill, Mrs. Grange, but I feel better about something that happened in class today. I-I think Uncle Averill would have approved of how I acted."
"Want to talk about it?"
"Well, it's just he always said never to take any so-called fact for granted, especially in history. I can almost remember his voice now, the way he used to say, 'if ever there's an argument in history, sonny, all you ever get is the propaganda report of the side which won.' You know, Mrs. Grange, I think he was right. Of course, a lot of folks thought old Uncle Averill was a little queer. Touched in the head is what they said."
"They oughtn't to say such things."
"Always tinkering around in his basement. Funny, nobody ever knew on what. He wouldn't let anybody near the place. He had a time lock and everything. What nobody could figure out is if he was trying so hard to guard something that was in the basement, why did he sometimes disappear for weeks on end without even telling anybody where he went. And I remember," Danny went on musing, "every time he came back he went into that harangue about history, as if somehow he had confirmed his suspicions. He was a funny old guy but I liked him."
"You remembering him so vividly after all these years will be the best epitaph your uncle could have, Danny. But what are you going to do? About what he left you, I mean."
"Uncle Averill always liked promptness. If he left something for me, he'd want me to pick it up immediately. I guess I ought to go down there to St. Augustine as fast as I can."
"But your classes-"
"I'll have to take an emergency leave of absence."
"Under the circumstances, I'm sure the college will approve. Do you think your uncle left you anything-well-important?"
"Important?" Danny repeated the word. "No, I don't think so. Not by the world's standards. But it must have been important to Uncle Averill. He was a-you know, an image-breaker-"
"An iconoclast," supplied Mrs. Grange.
"Yes'm, an iconoclast. But I liked him."
Mrs. Grange nodded. "You'd better get over and see the Dean."
An hour later, Danny was at the bus depot, waiting for the Greyhound that would take him over to Richmond, where he would meet a train for the south and Florida.
It was a rambling white stucco house with a red tile roof and a pleasant grove of palm trees in front and flame-red hibiscus climbing the stucco. The lawyer, whose name was Tartalion, met him at the door.
"I'll get right down to business, Mr. Jones," Tartalion said after they had entered the house. "Your uncle wanted it that way."
"Wait a minute," Danny said, "don't tell me they already had the funeral?"
"Your uncle didn't believe in funerals. His will stipulated cremation."
"But, it was so-"
"Sudden? I know, the will wasn't officially probated. But your uncle had a judge for a friend, and under the circumstances, his wishes were granted. Now, then, you know why you're here?"
"You mean, what he left me? I thought I'd at least get to see his-"
"His body? Not your uncle, not old Averill Jones. You ought to know better. Sonny," the lawyer asked abruptly, "how well did you know the old man?"
The sonny rankled. After all, Danny thought, I'm nineteen. I like beer and girls and I'm no sonny anymore. He sighed and thought of his history class, then thought of Uncle Averill's opinion of history, and felt better. He explained the relationship to Mr. Tartalion and waited for the lawyer to speak.
"Well, it beats me," Tartalion admitted. "Why he left it to a nephew he hasn't seen in ten or eleven years, I mean. Don't just look at me like that. You know that contraption he had in the basement, don't you? How he wouldn't let a soul near it, ever? Then tell me something, Danny. Why did he leave it to you?"
"You're joking!" Danny cried.
"I was your uncle's lawyer. I wouldn't joke about it. He said it was the only thing he had worth willing. He said he willed it to you. Want me to read you the clause?"
Danny nodded. He felt strangely flattered, because the contraption in Averill Jones' basement-a contraption which no one but Averill Jones had ever seen-had been the dearest thing in the old bachelor's life. Actually, he was not Danny's uncle, but his grand-uncle. He had lived alone in St. Augustine and had liked living alone. The only relative he had tolerated was Danny, when Danny was a small boy. Then, as Danny approached his ninth birthday, the old man had said, "They're teaching you too much at school, son. Too many wrong things, too many highfalutin' notions, too much just plain old hogwash. Why don't you kind of make yourself scarce for a few years?" It had been blunt and to the point. It had made Danny cry. He hadn't thought of what had happened that last day he'd seen his grand-uncle for years, but he thought of it now.
"But why can't I come back and see you?" he had asked tearfully.
"On account of the machine, son."
"But why, uncle?"
"Hey, come on now and stop your blubbering all over me. If you can't you can't."
"You have to tell me why!"
"Stubborn little critter. Well, I like that. All right, I'll tell you why. Because the machine has a funny kind of fuel, that's why. It doesn't run on gasoline, Danny, or anything like that."
"What does it do, uncle?"
But the old man had shaken his head. "Maybe someday after I'm gone you'll find out. If anyone finds out, it will be you, and that's a promise."
"You still didn't tell me why I have to go away."
"Because-well, don't go telling this to your folks, son, or they'll think old Uncle Averill has a screw loose somewheres-because that machine I have downstairs runs on faith. On faith, you understand? Oh, not the kind of faith they think is important and do a lot of talking and sermoning about, but a different kind of faith. Personal faith, you might say. Faith in a dream or a belief, no matter what people think. And-you know what ruins that faith?"
"No," Danny had said, his eyes very big.
"Knowledge!" cried his uncle. "Too much so-called knowledge which isn't knowledge at all, but hearsay. That's what they're teaching you. In school, other places, every day of your life. I'll tell you when you can come back, Danny: when you're ready to throw most of it overboard. All right?"
He had had to say all right. It was the last time he had ever seen his uncle, but those weren't the last words Averill Jones had spoken to him, for the old man had added as he got up to go: "Don't forget, son. Don't let them pull the wool over your eyes. History is propaganda-from a winner's point of view. If a side lost the war and got stamped on, you never see the war from its point of view. If an idea got out of favor and stamped on, the idea is ridiculed. Don't forget it, son. If you believe something, if you know it's right, have faith in it and don't give a mind what people say. Promise?"
Danny, his eyes stinging with tears because somehow he could sense he would never see Uncle Averill again, had said that he promised.
"... to my nephew, Danny Jones," the lawyer was reading. "So, you see, you'll have to go right down there and look the thing over. Naturally, I'll have to leave the house while you do so and I won't be able to return until you tell me I can-"
"Weren't you listening?"
"I guess I was thinking about my uncle."
"Well, the clause says you're to examine the machine alone, with no one else in the house. It's perfectly legal. If that's what your uncle wanted, that's what he'll get. Are you all set?"
Danny nodded and Tartalion shook his hand solemnly, then left the room. Danny heard the lawyer's footsteps receding, heard the front door open and close, heard a car engine start. Then, slowly, he walked through the living room of his dead uncle's house and across the long, narrow kitchen and to the basement stairs. His hands were very dry and he felt his heart thudding. He was nervous, which surprised him.
But why? he thought, why should it surprise me? All my life, Uncle Averill's basement has been a mystery. Let's face it, Danny-boy, you haven't exactly had an adventurous life. Maybe Uncle Averill was the biggest adventure in it, with his secret machine and strange disappearances. And maybe Uncle Averill did a good selling job when you were small, because that machine means mystery to you. It's probably not much more than a better mousetrap, but you want to believe it is, don't you? And you're nervous because the way Uncle Averill kept you and anyone else away from his basement when you were a kid makes it a kind of frightening place, even now.
He opened the basement door with a key which the lawyer had given him. Beyond the door were five steps and another door-this one of metal. It had had a time lock in the old days, Danny remembered, but the lock was gone now. The metal door swung ponderously, like the door to a bank vault, and then Danny was on the other side. It was dark down there, but faint light seeped in through small high windows and in a few moments Danny's eyes grew accustomed to the gloom.
The basement was empty except for what looked like a big old steamer trunk in the center of the dusty cement floor.
Danny was disappointed. He had childhood visions of an intricate maze of machinery cluttering up every available square foot of basement space, but now he knew that whatever it was which had taken up so much of Uncle Averill's time could fit in the odd-looking steamer trunk in the center of the floor and thus wasn't too much bigger than a good-size TV set. He walked slowly to the trunk and stood for a few moments over the lid. It was an ancient-looking steamer: Uncle Averill must have owned it since his own youth. Still, just a plain trunk.
Danny was in no hurry to open the lid, which did not seem to be locked. For a few moments, at least, he could shield himself from further disappointment-because now he had a hunch that Uncle Averill's machine was going to be a first-class dud. Maybe, he thought gloomily, Uncle Averill had simply not liked to be with people and had used the ruse of a bank-vault door and an empty steamer trunk to achieve privacy whenever he felt the need for it.
Remembering the history class, Danny decided that-after all-sometimes that wasn't a bad idea. Finally, he called himself a fool for waiting and threw up the trunk-lid.
A small case was all he saw inside, although the interior of the trunk was larger than he had expected. A man could probably curl up in there quite comfortably. But the case-the case looked exactly like it ought to house a tape-recorder.
Danny reached in and hauled out the case. It was heavy, about as heavy as a tape-recorder ought to be. Danny placed it down on the floor and opened it.
What he saw was a battery-powered tape-recorder. His disappointment increased: Uncle Averill had left a message for him, that was all. Dutifully, however, he set the spools and snapped on the switch.
A voice from yesterday-Uncle Averill's voice-spoke to him.