Art Kuzak stared at him. "You damned, independent bums--you, too, Nelsen!" he began to growl. But when he saw Nelsen's jaw harden, he got the point, and grinned, instead. "Okay, Frank. Nobody's indispensible. I might do the same when you come back--who knows...?"
Frank Nelsen joined a KRNH bubb convoy--Earthbound, but also passing fairly close to Mars--within a few hours.
Frank Nelsen meant the journey to be vagabond escape, an interlude of to hell with it relief from the grind, and from the increasingly uncertain mainstream of the things he knew best.
He rode with a long train of bubbs and great sheaves of smelted metal rods--tungsten, osmium, uranium 238. The sheaves had their own propelling ionic motors. He lazed like a tramp. He talked with asteroid-hoppers who meant to spend some time on Earth. Several had become almost rich. Most had strong, quiet faces that showed both distance- and home-hunger. A few had broken, and the angry sensitivity was visible.
Nelsen treated himself well. He was relieved of the duty of eternal vigilance by men whose job it was. So, for a while, his purpose was almost successful.
But the memory--or ghost--of Mitch Storey was never quite out of his mind. And, as a tiny, at first telescopic crescent with a rusty light enlarged with lessened distance ahead, the ugly enigma of present-day Mars dug deeper into his brain.
Every twenty-four hours and thirty-eight minutes--the length of the Martian day--whenever the blue-green wedge of Syrtis Major appeared in the crescent, he beamed the Survey Station, which was still maintained for the increase of knowledge, and as a safeguard for incautious adventurers who will tackle any dangerous mystery or obstacle. His object was to talk to Nance Codiss.
"I thought perhaps you and your group had gotten restless and had started out for the Belt already," he laughed during their first conversation.
"Oh, no--a lab technician like me is far too busy here, for one thing," she assured him, her happy tone bridging the distance. "We came this far with a well-armed freight caravan, in good passenger quarters. If we went on, I suppose it would be the same... Anyway, for years you didn't worry much about me. Why now, Frank?"
"A mystery," he teased in return. "Or perhaps because I considered Earth safe--instinctively."
But he was right in the first place. It was a mystery--something to do with the startling news that she was on the way, that closer friendship was pending. The impulse to go meet her had been his first, almost thoughtless impulse.
He was still glad that she wasn't out between Mars and the Belt, where disaster had once hit him hard. But now he wondered if the Survey Station was any better for anybody, even though it was reputed to be quite secure.
The caravan he rode approached his destination no closer than ten million miles. Taking cautious note of radar data which indicated that space all around was safely empty, he cast off in his Archer with a small, new, professional-type bubb packed across his hips. Inside his helmet he lighted a cigarette--quite an unusual luxury.
It took a long time to reach Phobos. They gave him shots there--new preventative medicine that was partially effective against the viruses of Mars. Descent in the winged rocket was rough. But then he was gliding with a sibilant whistle through a natural atmosphere, again. Within minutes he was at the Station--low, dusty domes, many of them deserted, now, at the edge of the airfield, a lazily-spinning wind gauge, tractors, auto-jeeps, several helicopters.
He stepped down with his gear. Mars was all around him: A few ground-clinging growths nearby--harmless, locally evolved vegetation. Distant, coppery cliffs reflecting the setting sun. Ancient excavations notched them. Dun desert to the east, with little plumes of dust blowing. Through his Archer--a necessary garment here not only because the atmosphere was only one-tenth as dense as Earth-air and poor in oxygen, but because of the microscopic dangers it bore--Nelsen could hear the faint sough of the wind.
The thirty-eight percent of terrestrial gravity actually seemed strong to him now, and made him awkward, as he turned and looked west. Perhaps two miles off, past a barbed-wire fence and what must be an old tractor trail of the hopeful days of colonization, he saw the blue-green edge of Syrtis Major, the greatest of the thickets, with here and there a jutting spur of it projecting toward him along a gully. Nelsen's hide tingled. But his first glimpse was handicapped by distance. He saw only an expanse of low shagginess that might have been scrub growths of any kind.
Dug into the salt-bearing ground at intervals, he knew, were the fire weapons ready to throw oxygen and synthetic napalm--jellied gasoline. Never yet had they been discharged, along this defense line. But you could never be sure just what might be necessary here.
A man of about thirty had approached. "I meet the new arrivals," he said. "If you'll come along with me, Mr. Nelsen..."
He was dark, and medium large, and he had a genial way. He looked like a hopper--an asteroid-miner--the tough, level-headed kind that adjusts to space and keeps his balance.
"Name's Ed Huth," he continued, as they walked to the reception dome. "Canadian. Good, international crowd here--however long you mean to stay. Most interesting frontier in the solar system, too. Probably you've heard most of the rules and advice. But here's a paper. Refresh your memory by reading it over as soon as you can. There is one thing which I am required to show everybody who comes here. Inside this peek box. You are instructed to take a good look."
Huth's geniality had vanished.
The metal box was a yard high, and twice as long and wide. It stood, like a memorial, before the reception dome entrance. A light shone beyond the glass-covered slot, as Nelsen bent to peer.
He had seen horror before now. He had seen a pink mist dissolve in the sunshine as a man in armor out in the Belt was hit by an explosive missile, his blood spraying and boiling. Besides, he had read up on the thickets of Mars, watched motion pictures, heard Gimp Hines' stories of his brief visit here. So, at first, he could be almost casual about what he saw in the peek box. There were many ghastly ways for a man to die.
Even the thicket plant in the box seemed dead, though Nelsen knew that plant successors to the original Martians had the rugged power of revival. This one showed the usual paper-dry whorls or leaves, and the usual barrel-body, perhaps common to arid country growths, everywhere. Scattered over the barrel, between the spines, were glinting specks--vegetable, light-sensitive cells developed into actual visual organs. The plant had the usual tympanic pods of its kind--a band of muscle-like tissue stretched across a hollow interior--by which it could make buzzing sounds. Nelsen knew that, like any Earthly green plant, it produced oxygen, but that, instead of releasing it, it stored the gas in spongy compartments within its horny shell, using it to support an animal-like tissue combustion to keep its vitals from freezing during the bitterly frigid nights.
Nelsen also knew that deeper within the thing was a network of whitish pulp, expanded at intervals to form little knobs. Sectioned, under a microscope, they would look like fibred masses of animal or human nerve and brain cells, except that, chemically, they were starch and cellulose rather than protein.
Worst to see was the rigid clutch of monster's tactile organs, which grew from the barrel's crown. It was like a powerful man struggling to uproot a rock, or a bear or an octopus crushing an enemy. It was dark-hole drama, like something from another galaxy. Like some horribly effective piece of sculpture, the tableau in the box preserved the last gasp of an incautious youth in armor.
The tendrils of the thicket plant were furred with erect spines of a shiny, russet color. They were so fine that they looked almost soft. But Nelsen was aware that they were sharper than the hypodermic needles they resembled--in another approach to science. Now, Nelsen felt the tingling revulsion and hatred.
"Of course you know that you don't have to get caught like that poor bloke did," Huth said dryly. "Just not to disinfect the outside of your Archer well enough and then leave it near you, indoors, is sufficient. I was here before there was any trouble. When it came, it was a shambles..."
Huth eyed Nelsen for a moment, then continued on another tack. "Biology... Given the whole universe to experiment in, I suppose you can never know what it will come up with--or what is possible. These devils--you get to hate them in your sleep. If their flesh--or their methods--were something like ours, as was the case with the original Martians or the people of the Asteroid Planet, it wouldn't seem so bad. Still, they make you wonder: What would you do, if, in your own way, you could think and observe, but were rooted to the ground; if you were denied the animal ability of rapid motion, if you didn't have hands with which to fashion tools or build apparatus, if fire was something you could scarcely use?..."
Nelsen smiled. "I am wondering," he said. "I promise to do a lot more of it as soon as I get squared away. I could inflate my bubb, and sleep in the yard in it, if I had to. Then, as usual, off the Earth, you'll expect me to earn my breathing air and keep, after a couple of days, whether I can pay instead or not. That's fine with me, of course. There's another matter which I'd like to discuss, but that can be later."
"No sleeping out," Huth laughed. "That's just where people get careless. There are plenty of quarters available since the retreat of settlers almost emptied this world of terrestrial intrusion--except for us here and the die-hard desert rats, and the new, screwball adventurers... By the way, if it ever becomes important, the deserts are safe--at least from what you just saw--as you probably know..."
Nelsen passed through an airlock, where live steam and a special silicone oil accomplished the all-important disinfection of his Archer, his bubb, and the outside of his small, sealed baggage roll. Armor and bubb he left racked with rows of others.
It wasn't till he got into the reception dome lounge that he saw Nance Codiss. She didn't rush at him. Reserve had dropped over them both again as if in reconsideration of a contact made important too suddenly. He clasped her fingers, then just stood looking at her. Lately, they had exchanged a few pictures.
"Your photographs don't lie, Nance," he said at last.
"Yours do, Frank," she answered with complete poise. "You look a lot less grim and tired."
"Wait," he told her. "I'll be right back..."
He went with Ed Huth to ditch his roll in his sleeping cubicle, get cleaned up and change his clothes.
She was beautiful, she had grave moods, she was wearing his fabulous bracelet--if only not to offend him. But when he returned, he met two of the girls who had come out to Mars with her--a nurse and another lab technician. They were the bubbly type, full of bravado and giggles for their strange, new surroundings. For a moment he felt far too old at twenty-four for Nance's twenty. He wondered regretfully if her being here was no more than part of his excuse for getting away from the Belt and from the sense of ultimate human disaster building up.
But much of his feeling of separation from her disappeared as they sat alone in the lounge, talking--first about Jarviston, then about here. Nance had available information about the thickets pretty well down pat.
"You can't keep those plants alive here at the Station, Frank," she said quietly. "They make study difficult by dying. It's as if they knew that they couldn't win here. So they retreat--to keep their secrets. But Dr. Pacetti, our head of Medical Research, says that we can never know that they won't find a way to attack us directly. That's what the waiting napalm line is for. I don't think he is exaggerating."
"Why do you say that?" Nelsen asked.
He was encouraging her, of course. But he wasn't being patronizing. Frost tingled in his nerves. He wanted to know her version.
"I'll show you the little museum we have," she replied, her eyes widening slightly. "This is probably old hat to you--but it's weird--it gives you the creeps..."
He followed her along a covered causeway to another dome. In a gallery there, a series of dry specimens were set up, inside sealed boxes made of clear plastic.
The first display was centered around a tapered brass tube--perhaps one of the barrels of an antique pair of fieldglasses. Wrapping it was a spiny brown tendril from which grew two sucker-like organs, shaped like acorn tops. One was firmly attached to the metal. The other had been pulled free, its original position on the barrel marked by a circular area of corrosion. The face of the detached sucker was also shown--a honeycomb structure of waxy vegetable tissue, detailed with thousands of tiny ducts and hairlike feelers.
"Some settler dropped the piece of brass out on a trail in Syrtis Major," Nance explained. "Later, it was found like this. Brass is something that people have almost stopped using. So, it was new to them. They wouldn't have been interested in magnesium, aluminum, or stainless steel anymore. The suckers aren't a usual part of them either. But the suckers grow--for a special purpose, Dr. Pacetti believes. A test--perhaps an analysis. They exude an acid, to dissolve a little of the metal. It's like a human chemist working. Only, perhaps, better--more directly--with specialized feelers and sensing organs."
Nance's quiet voice had a slight, awed quaver at the end.
Frank Nelsen nodded. He had examined printed pictures and data before this. But here the impact was far more real and immediate; the impact of strange minds with an approach of their own was more emphatic.
"What else?" he urged.
They stood before another sealed case containing a horny, oval pod, cut open. It had closed around a lump of greenish stone.
"Malachite," Nance breathed. "One kind of copper ore. They reduced it, extracted some of the pure metal. See all the little reddish specks shining? It is pretty well established that the process is something like electroplating. There's a dissolving acid--then a weak electric current--from a kind of battery... Oh, nobody should laugh, Frank--Dr. Pacetti keeps pointing out that there are electric eels on Earth, with specialized muscle-tissue that acts as an electric cell... But this is somewhat different. Don't ask me exactly how it functions--I only heard our orientation lecture, while we toured this museum. But see those small compartments in the thick shells of the pod--with the membranes separating them? All of them contained fluids--some acid, others alkaline. Mixed in with the cellulose of the membranes, you can see both silvery and reddish specks--as if they had to incorporate both a conductor and a difference of metals to get a current. At least, that was what was suggested in the lecture..."
Frank Nelsen and Nance Codiss moved on from display case to display case, each of which showed another kind of pod cut in half. The interiors were all different and all complicated... Membranes with a faint, metallic sheen--laminated or separated by narrow air spaces as in a capacitor, for instance... Balls of massed fibre, glinting... Curious, spiral formations of waxy tissue...
"They use electricity as a minor kind of defense," Nance went on, her tone still low with suppressed excitement that was close to dread. "We know that some of them can give you a shock--if you're fool enough to get so close that you can touch them. And they do emit radio impulses on certain wavelengths. Signals--communication...? As for the rest, perhaps you'd better do your own guessing, Frank. But the difference between us and them seems to be that we make our apparatus. They grow them, build them--with their own living tissue cells--in a way that must be under their constant, precise control. I suppose they even work from a carefully thought-out design--a kind of cryptic blueprint... Go along with the idea--or not--as you choose. But our experts suspect that much of what we have here represents research apparatus--physical, chemical, electrical. That they may get closer to understanding the ultimate structure of matter than we can, because their equipment is part of themselves, in which they can develop senses that we don't possess... Well, I'll skip any more of that. Because the best--or the worst--is still coming. Right here, Frank..."
The case showed several small, urn-like growths, sectioned like the other specimens.
Frank Nelsen grinned slightly. "All right--let me tell it," he said. "Because this is something I really paid attention to! Like you imply, their equipment is alive. So they work best with life--viruses, germs, vegetable-allergy substances. These are their inventing, developing and brewing bottles--for the numerous strains of Syrtis Fever virus. The living molecule chains split off from the inner tissue walls of the bottles, and grow and multiply in the free fluid. At least, that's how I read it."
"And that is where my lab job begins, Frank," she told him. "Helping develop anti-virus shots--testing them on bits of human tissue, growing in a culture bath. An even partially effective anti-virus isn't found easily. And when it is, another virus strain will soon appear, and the doctors have to start over... Oh, the need isn't as great, any more, as when the Great Rush away from Mars was on. There are only half a dozen really sick people in the hospital now. Late comers and snoopers who got careless or curious. You've got to remember that the virus blows off the thickets like invisible vapor. There's one guy from Idaho--Jimmy--James Scanlon. Come along. I'll show you, Frank..."
He lay behind plastic glass, in a small cubicle. A red rash, with the pattern of frostwork on a Minnesota windowpane in January, was across his lean, handsome face. Maybe he was twenty--Nance's age. His bloodshot eyes stared at terrors that no one else could see.
Nance called softly through the thin infection barrier. "Jimmy!"
He moaned a little. "Francy..."
"High fever, Frank," Nance whispered. "Typical Syrtis. He wants to be home--with his girl. I guess you know that nostalgia--yearning terribly for old, familiar surroundings--is a major symptom. It's like a command from them--to get out of Mars. The red rash is something extra he picked up. An allergy... Oh, we think he'll survive. Half of them now do. He's big and strong. Right now, even the nurses don't go in there, except in costumes that are as infection-tight as armor. Later on, when the fever dwindles to chronic intermittence, it will no longer be contagious. Even so, the new laws on Earth won't let him return there for a year. I don't know whether such laws are fair or not. We've got a hundred here, who were sick, and are now stranded and waiting, working at small jobs. Others have gone to the Belt--which seems terrible for someone not quite well. I hope that Jimmy bears up all right--he's such a kid... Let's get out of here..."
Her expression was gently maternal. Or maybe it was something more?
Back in the lounge, she asked, "What will you do here, Frank?"
"Whatever it is, there is one thing I want to include," he answered. "I want to try to find out just what happened to Mitch Storey."
"Natch. I remember him. So I looked the incident up. He disappeared, deep in Syrtis Major, over three years ago. He had carried a sick settler in--on foot. He always seemed lucky or careful, or smart. After he got lost, his wife--a nurse from here whose name had been Selma Washington--went looking for him. She never was found either."
"Oh?" Nelsen said in mild startlement.
"Yes... Talk to Ed Huth. There still are helicopter patrols--watching for signs of a long list of missing people, and keeping tabs on late comers who might turn out to be screwballs. You look as though you might be Ed's type for that kind of work... I'll have to go, now, Frank. Duty in half an hour..."
Huth was grinning at him a little later. "This department doesn't like men who have a vanished friend, Nelsen," he said. "It makes their approach too heroically personal. On the other hand, some of our lads seem underzealous, nowadays... If you can live up to your successful record in the Belt, maybe you're the right balance. Let's try you."
For a week, about all Nelsen did was ride along with Huth in the heli. At intervals, he'd call, "Mitch... Mitch Storey...!" into his helmet-phone. But, of course, that was no use.
He couldn't say that he didn't see Mars--from a safe altitude of two thousand feet: The vast, empty deserts where, fairly safe from the present dominant form of Martian life, a few adventurers and archeologists still rummaged among the rust heaps of climate control and other machines, and among the blasted debris of glazed ceramic cities--still faintly tainted with radioactivity--where the original inhabitants had died. The straight ribbons of thicket growths, crossing even the deserts, carrying in their joined, hollow roots the irrigation water of the otherwise mythical "canals." The huge south polar cap of hoarfrost melting, blackening the soil with brief moisture, while the frost line retreated toward the highlands. Syrtis, itself, where the trails, once burned out with oxygen and gasoline-jelly to permit the passage of vehicles, had again become completely overgrown--who could hope to stamp out that devilishly hardy vegetation, propagating by means of millions of windblown spores, with mere fire? The broken-down trains of tractors and trailers, now almost hidden. The stellene garden domes that had flattened. Here were the relics left by people who had sought to spread out to safety, to find old goals of freedom from fear.
Several times in Syrtis, Huth and Nelsen descended, using a barren hillock or an isolated spot of desert as a landing area. That was when Nelsen first heard the buzzing of the growths.
Twice, working warily with machetes, and holding their flame weapons ready, they chopped armored mummies from enwrapping tendrils, while little eye cells glinted at them balefully, and other tendrils bent slowly toward them. They searched out the space-fitness cards, which bore old dates, and addresses of next of kin.
In a few more days, Nelsen was flying the 'copter. Then he was out on his own, watching, searching. For a couple of weeks he hangared the heli at once, after each patrol, and Nance always was there to meet him as he did so.
Inevitably the evening came when he said, "We could fly out again, Nance. For an hour or two. It doesn't break any rules."
Those evening rides, high over Syrtis Major, toward the setting sun, became an every other day custom, harmless in itself. A carefully kept nuclear-battery motor didn't conk; the vehicle could almost fly without guidance. It was good to look down at the blue-green shagginess, below... Familiarity bred, not contempt, but a decline of dread to the point where it became a pleasant thrill--an overtone to the process of falling in love. Otherwise, perhaps they led each other on, into incaution. Out in the lonely fastnesses of Mars they seemed to find the sort of peace and separation from danger on the hectic Earth that the settlers had sought here.
"We always pass over that same hill," Nance said during one of their flights. "It must have been a beautiful little island in the ancient ocean, when there was that much water. Now it belongs to us, Frank."
"It's barren--we could land," Nelsen suggested quickly.
They visited the hill a dozen times safely, breaking no printed rule. But maybe they shouldn't have come so often to that same place. In life there is always a risk--which is food for a fierce soul. Frank Nelsen and Nance Codiss were fierce souls.
They'd stand by the heli and look out over Syrtis, their gloved fingers entwined. If they couldn't kiss, here, through their helmets, that was merely comic pathos--another thing to laugh and be happy over.
"Our wind-blown hill," Nance chuckled on that last evening. "Looking down over a culture, a history--maybe arguments, lawsuits, jokes, parties; gossip too, for all we know--disguised as a huge briar patch that makes funny noises."
"Shut up--I love you," Nelsen gruffed.
"Shut up yourself--it's you I love," she answered.
The little sun was half sunk behind the Horizon. The 'copter was only a hundred feet away, along the hillcrest. That was when it happened. Two dull, plopping sounds came almost together.
If a thinking animal can use the pressure of a confined gas to propel small missiles, is there any reason why other intelligences can't do the same? From two bottle-like pods the clusters of darts--or long, sharp thorns--were shot. Only a few of them struck their targets. Fewer, still, found puncturable areas and struck through silicone rubber and fine steelwire cloth into flesh. Penetration was not deep, but deep enough.
Nance screamed. Nelsen wasn't at all sure that he didn't scream himself as the first anguish dizzied and half blinded him.
From the start it was really too late. Nelsen was as hardy and determined as any. He tried to get Nance to the 'copter. Less than halfway, she crumpled. With a savage effort of will he managed to drag her a few yards, before his legs refused to obey him, or support him.
His blood carried a virus to his brain about as quickly as it would have carried a cobra's venom. They probably could have made such protein-poisons, too; but they had never used them against men, no doubt because something that could spread and infect others was better.
For a while, as the black, starshot night closed in, Nelsen knew, or remembered, nothing at all--unless the mental distortions were too horrible. Then he seemed to be in a pit of stinking, viscous fluid, alive with stringy unknowns that were boring into him... Unreachable in another universe was a town called Jarviston. He yelled till his wind was gone.
He had a half-lucid moment in which he knew it was night, and understood that he had a raging fever. He was still clinging to Nance, who clung to him. So instinct still worked. He saw that they had blundered--its black bulk was visible against the stars. Phobos hadn't risen; Deimos, the farther moon, was too small to furnish appreciable light.
Something touched him from behind, and he recoiled, pushing Nance back. He yanked the machete from his belt, and struck blindly... Oh, no!--you didn't get caught like this--not usually, he told himself. Not in their actual grip! They were too slow--you could always dodge! It was only when you were near something not properly disinfected that you got Syrtis Fever, which was the worst that could happen--wasn't it...?
He heard an excited rhythm in the buzzing. Now he remembered his shoulder-lamp, fumbled to switch it on, failed, and stumbled a few steps with Nance toward the hill. Something caught his feet--then hers. Trying to get her free, he dropped his machete...
Huth's voice spoke in his helmet-phone. "We hear you, Nelsen! Hold out... We'll be there in forty minutes..."
"It's--it's silly to be so scared, Frankie..." he heard Nance stammer almost apologetically. Dear Nance...
Screaming, he kicked out again and again with his heavy boots, and got both her and himself loose.
It wasn't any good. A shape loomed near them. A thing that must have sprung from them--someway. A huge, zombie form--the ugliest part of this night of anguish and distortion. But he was sure that it was real.
The thing struck him in the stomach. Then there was a biting pain in his shoulder...
There wasn't any more, just then. But this wasn't quite the end, either. The jangled impressions were like split threads of consciousness, misery-wracked and tenuous. They were widely separated. His brain seemed to crack into a million needle-pointed shards, that made no sense except to indicate the passage of time. A month? A century...?
It seemed that he was always struggling impossibly to get himself and Nance somewhere--out of hot, noisesome holes of suffocation, across deserts, up endless walls, and past buzzing sounds that were mixed incongruously with strange harmonica music that seemed to express all time and space... He could never succeed though the need was desperate. But sometimes there was a coolness answering his thirst, or rubbed into his burning skin, and he would seem to sleep... Often, voices told him things, but he always forgot...
It wasn't true that he came out of the hot fog suddenly, but it seemed that he did. He was sitting in dappled sunshine in an ordinary lawn chair of tubular magnesium with a back and bottom of gaudy fabric. Above him was a narrow, sealed roof of stellene. The stone walls showed the beady fossils of prehistoric Mars. More than probably, these chambers had been cut in the living rock, by the ancients.