I was cockeyed enough to follow Miller's example and found out how much it really hurt. The idea was to establish a nerve channel, brain to brain, along which thoughts might pass. But nothing came through except a vague and restless questioning, mixed with the pain of our experiment.
"It doesn't work with us, Nolan," Miller said regretfully. "Our nervous systems aren't hooked up right for this sort of stunt, or Etl's nerve cells are too different from ours."
So we had to fall back on simpler methods of communication with Etl. We tried teaching him sign language, but it didn't work too well, because tentacles aren't hands. Klein's inventive ability, plus some pointers from me about how Etl used his tendrils, finally solved the problem.
Klein made a cylindrical apparatus with a tonal buzzer, operated by electricity, at one end. It had dozens of stops and controls, their grips in the shape of tiny metal rings, along the sides of the cylinder.
First I had to learn a little about how to work that instrument with my big fingers. The trick was to mold the sounds of the buzzer, as human lips and tongue mold and shape tones of the vocal cords, so that they became syllables and words.
"Hell-oh-g-g-Et-t-l-l.... Chee-s-s-ee-whad-d I-ee got-t?"
It was tougher for me than learning to play a saxophone is for a boy of ten. And the noises were almost as bad.
I turned the apparatus over to Etl as soon as I could. Let him figure out how to use it. I'd just give him the words, the ideas. Of course he had to get educated, learn his cat, dog and rat, and his arithmetic, the same as a human kid, even if he was from another world. In a way, it was the law. You can't let a youngster, capable of learning, stay home from school.
And I was Etl's tutor. I thought what a crazy situation we had here; an entity from one planet being brought up on another, without any real knowledge of his own folks, and unable to be very close to those entities by whom he was being reared. It was strange and sad and a little comic.
For a while I thought I had a stammering parrot on my hands: "Hel-l-l-l-o ... Hell-oh-g-o ... N-n-ol-l-an-n-n ... Hell-lo-oh."
Etl never lost that habit of repetition. But he made progress in his studies.
"One, two, t'ree, fo', fibe, siss ... One time one ee one, toot time one ee two...."
Picture it the way it was--I, clad in a spacesuit, crouching beside Etl in the cold, thin air inside that cage, tracing numbers and words in the dusty soil on the floor, while he read aloud with his voice tube or copied my words and figures with a sharp stick. Outside the transparent cage, the television cameras would be watching. And I would think that maybe in a way Etl was like Tarzan, being raised by apes.
Four more years went by. I had offspring of my own. Patty and Ron. Good-looking, lovable brats. But Etl was my job--and maybe a little more than that.
At the end of two years, he stopped growing. He weighed fifty-two pounds and he was the ugliest-looking, elongated, gray-pink, leathery ovoid that you could imagine. But with his voice tube clutched in his tendrils, he could talk like a man.
He could take the finest watch, apart, repair and clean it in jig-time--and this was just one skill among scores. Toward the end of the four years, a Professor Jonas was coming in regularly and getting into a spacesuit to give him lessons in physics, chemistry, college math, astronomy and biology. Etl was having his troubles with calculus.
And Etl could at least ape the outward aspects of the thoughts and feelings of men. There were things he said to me that were characteristic, though they came out of apparent sullenness that, for all I knew, had seeds of murder in it: "You're my pal, Nolan. Sort of my uncle. I won't say my father; you wouldn't like that."
Nice, embarrassing sentiment, on the surface. Maybe it was just cool mimicry--a keen mind adding up human ways from observation of me and my kids, and making up something that sounded the same, without being the same at all. Yet somehow I hoped that Etl was sincere.
Almost from the building of the cage, of course, we'd kept photographs and drawings of Mars inside for Etl to see.
Hundreds of times I had said to him things like: "It's a ninety-nine and ninety-nine hundredths per cent probability that your race lives on that world, Etl. Before the ship that brought you crashed on Earth, we weren't at all sure that it was inhabited, and it's still an awful mystery. I guess maybe you'll want to go there. Maybe you'll help us make contact and establish amicable relations with the inhabitants--if there's any way we can do that."
During those five years, no more ships came to Earth from space, as far as we knew. I guessed that the Martians understood how supremely hard it would be to make friendly contact between the peoples of two worlds that had always been separate. There was difference of form, and certainly difference of esthetic concepts. Of custom, nothing could be the same. We didn't have even an inkling of what the Martian civilization would be like.
One thing happened during the third year of Etl's existence. And his presence on Earth was responsible. Enough serious interest in space travel was built up to overcome the human inertia that had counteracted the long-standing knowledge that such things were possible. A hydrogen-fusion reaction motor was built into a rocket, which was then hurled to the moon.
Miller went along, ostensibly to help establish the first Army experimental station there, but mostly to acquire the practical experience for a far longer leap.
In a way, I wished I could have gone, too; but, after all, the shadows in Etl's background were far more intriguing than the dead and airless craters and plains of the lunar surface.
Before Miller and the other moon-voyagers even returned, Detroit was busy forging, casting and machining the parts for a better, larger and much longer-range rocket, to be assembled in White Sands, New Mexico.
When Miller got back, he was too eager and busy to say much about the moon. For the next two and a half years, he was mostly out in White Sands.
But during the first of our now infrequent meetings, he said to Craig and Klein and me: "When I go out to Mars, I'd like to keep my old bunch as crew. I need men I'm used to working with, those who understand the problems we're up against. I have a plan that makes sense. The trouble is, to join this expedition, a man has to be part damn-fool."
Klein chuckled. "I'll sell you some of mine."
I just nodded my way in. I'd never thought of backing out.
Craig grabbed Miller's hand and shook it.
Miller gave Etl a chance to say no. "You can stay on Earth if you want to, Etl."
But the creature said: "I have lived all my life with the idea of going, Miller. Thank you."
Miller briefed us about his plan. Then he, Klein, Craig and I all took a lot of psych tests--trick questioning and so forth to reveal defects of conviction and control. But we were all pretty well indoctrinated and steady. Etl had taken so many tests already that, if there were any flaws still hidden in him, they would probably never be found.
Mars and Earth were approaching closer to each other again in their orbital positions. A month before takeoff time, Craig, Klein and I took Etl, in a small air-conditioned cage, to White Sands. The ship towered there, silvery, already completed. We knew its structure and the function of its machinery intimately from study of its blueprints. But our acquaintance with it had to be actual, too. So we went over it again and again, under Miller's tutelage.
Miller wrote a last message, to be handed to the newscast boys after our departure: "If by Martian action, we fail to return, don't blame the Martians too quickly, because there is a difference and a doubt. Contact between worlds is worth more than the poison of a grudge...."
I said good-by to Alice and the kids, who had come out to see me off. I felt pretty punk. Maybe I was a stinker, going off like that. But, on the other hand, that wasn't entirely the right way to look at things, because Patty's and Ron's faces fairly glowed with pride for their pa. The tough part, then, was for Alice, who knew what it was all about. Yet she looked proud, too. And she didn't go damp.
"If it weren't for the kids, I'd be trying to go along, Louie," she told me. "Take care of yourself."
She knew that a guy has to do what's in his heart. I think that the basic and initial motive of exploration is that richest of human commodities--high romance. The metallic ores and other commercial stuff that get involved later are only cheap by-products. To make the dream of space travel a reality was one of our purposes. But to try to forestall the danger behind it was at least as important.
We blasted off in a rush of fire that must have knocked down some self-operating television cameras. We endured the strangling thrust of acceleration, and then the weightlessness of just coasting on our built-up velocity. We saw the stars and the black sky of space. We saw the Earth dwindle away behind us.
But the journey itself, though it lasted ninety days, was no real adventure--comparatively speaking. There was nothing unpredictable in it. Space conditions were known. We even knew about the tension of nostalgia. But we understood, too, the mental attitudes that could lessen the strain. Crossing space to another world under the tremendous power of atomic fusion, and under the precise guidance of mathematics and piloting devices, reduces the process almost to a formula. If things go right, you get where you're going; if not, there isn't much you can do. Anyway, we had the feeling that the technical side of interplanetary travel was the simplest part.
There is a marking near the Martian equator shaped like the funnel of a gigantic tornado. It is the red planet's most conspicuous feature and it includes probably the least arid territory of a cold, arid world. Syrtis Major, it is called. Astronomers had always supposed it to be an ancient sea-bottom. That was where our piloting devices were set to take us.
Over it, our retarding fore-jets blazed for the last time. Our retractable wings slid from their sockets and took hold of the thin atmosphere with a thump and a soft rustle. On great rubber-tired wheels, our ship--horizontal now, like a plane--landed in a broad valley that must have been cleared of boulders by Martian engineers countless ages before.
Our craft stopped rumbling. We peered from the windows of our cabin, saw the deep blue of the sky and the smaller but brilliant Sun. We saw little dusty whirlwinds, carven monoliths that were weathering away, strange blue-green vegetation, some of which we could recognize. To the east, a metal tower glinted. And a mile beyond it there was a tremendous flat structure. An expanse of glassy roof shone. What might have been a highway curved like a white ribbon into the distance.
The scene was quiet, beautiful and sad. You could feel that here maybe a hundred civilizations had risen, and had sunk back into the dust. Mars was no older than the Earth; but it was smaller, had cooled faster and must have borne life sooner. Perhaps some of those earlier cultures had achieved space travel. But, if so, it had been forgotten until recent years. Very soon now its result would be tested. The meeting of alien entity with alien entity was at hand.
I looked at Etl, still in his air-conditioned cage. His stalked eyes had a glow and they swayed nervously. Here was the home-planet that he had never seen. Was he eager or frightened, or both?
His education and experience were Earthly. He knew no more of Mars than we did. Yet, now that he was here and probably at home, did difference of physical structure and emotion make him feel that the rest of us were enemies, forever too different for friendly contact? My hide began to pucker.
High in the sky, some kind of aircraft glistened. On the distant turnpike there were the shining specks of vehicles that vanished from sight behind a ridge shaggy with vegetation.
Miller had a tight, nervous smile. "Remember, men," he said. "Passivity. Three men can't afford to get into a fight with a whole planet."
We put on spacesuits, which we'd need if someone damaged our rocket. It had been known for years that Martian air was too thin and far too poor in oxygen for human lungs. Even Etl, in his cage, had an oxygen mask that Klein had made for him. We had provided him with this because the Martian atmosphere, drifting away through the ages, might be even leaner than the mixture we'd given Etl on Earth. That had been based on spectroscopic analyses at 40 to 60 million miles' distance, which isn't close enough for any certainty.
Now all we could do was wait and see what would happen. I know that some jerks, trying to make contact with the inhabitants of an unknown world, would just barge in and take over. Maybe they'd wave a few times and grin. If instead of being met like brothers, they were shot at, they'd be inclined to start shooting. If they got out alive, their hatred would be everlasting. We had more sense.
Yet passivity was a word that I didn't entirely like. It sounded spineless. The art of balancing naive trust exactly against hard cynicism, to try to produce something that makes a little sense, isn't always easy. Though we knew something of Martians, we didn't know nearly enough. Our plan might be wrong; we might turn out to be dead idiots in a short time. Still, it was the best thing that we could think of.
The afternoon wore on. With the dropping temperature, a cold pearly haze began to form around the horizon. The landscape around us was too quiet. And there was plenty of vegetation at hand to provide cover. Maybe it had been a mistake to land here. But we couldn't see that an arid place would be any good either. We had needed to come to a region that was probably inhabited.
We saw a Martian only once--scampering across an open glade, holding himself high on his stiffened tentacles. Here, where the gravity was only thirty-eight percent of the terrestrial, that was possible. It lessened the eeriness a lot to know beforehand what a Martian looked like. He looked like Etl.
Later, something pinged savagely against the flank of our rocket. So there were trigger-happy individuals here, too. But I remembered how, on Earth, Etl's cage had been surrounded by machine-guns and cyanogen tanks, rigged to kill him quickly if it became necessary. That hadn't been malice, only sensible precaution against the unpredictable. And wasn't our being surrounded by weapons here only the same thing, from another viewpoint? Yet it didn't feel pleasant, sensible or not.
There were no more shots for half an hour. But our tension mounted with the waiting.
Finally Klein said through his helmet phone: "Maybe Etl ought to go out and scout around now."
Etl was naturally the only one of us who had much chance for success.
"Go only if you really want to, Etl," Miller said. "It could be dangerous even for you."
But Etl had already put on his oxygen mask. Air hissed into his cage from the greater pressure outside as he turned a valve. Then he unlatched the cage-door. He wouldn't be harmed by the brief exposure to atmosphere of Earth-density while he moved to our rocket's airlock. Now he was getting around high on his tendrils. Like a true Martian.
He left his specially built pistol behind, according to plan. We had weapons, but we didn't mean to use them unless everything went dead wrong.
Etl's tendrils touched the dusty surface of Mars. A minute later, he disappeared behind some scrub growths. Then, for ten minutes, the pendant silence was heavy. It was broken by the sound of a shot, coming back to us thinly through the rarefied air.
"Maybe they got him," Craig said anxiously.
Nobody answered. I thought of an old story I'd read about a boy being brought up by wolves. His ways were so like an animal's that hunters had shot him. He had come back to civilization dead. Perhaps there was no other way.
By sundown, Etl had not returned. So three things seemed possible: He had been murdered. He had been captured. Or else he had deserted to his own kind. I began to wonder. What if we were complete fools? What if there were more than differences of body and background, plus the dread of newness, between Earthmen and Martians, preventing their friendship?
What if Martians were basically malevolent?
But speculation was useless now. We were committed to a line of action. We had to follow it through.
We ate a meager supper. The brief dusk changed to a night blazing with frigid stars. But the darkness on the ground remained until the jagged lump of light that was Phobos, the nearer moon, arose out of the west. Then we saw two shapes rushing toward our ship to find cover closer to it. As they hid themselves behind a clump of cactiform shrubs, I had only the memory of how I had seen them for a moment, their odd masks and accoutrements glinting, their supporting tendrils looking like tattered rags come alive in the dim moonlight.
We'd turned the light out in our cabin, so we couldn't be seen through the windows. But now we heard soft, scraping sounds against the outer skin of our rocket. Probably they meant that the Martians were trying to get in. I began to sweat all over, because I knew what Miller meant to do. Here was a situation that we had visualized beforehand.
"We could shut them out till dawn, Miller," I whispered hoarsely. "We'd all feel better if the meeting took place in day-light. And there'd be less chance of things going wrong."
But Miller said, "We can't tell what they'd be doing in the dark meanwhile, Nolan. Maybe fixing to blow us up. So we'd better get this thing over with now."
I knew he was right. Active resistance to the Martians could never save us, if they intended to destroy us. We might have taken the rocket off the ground like a plane, seeking safety in the upper air for a while, if we could get it launched that way from the rough terrain. But using our jets might kill some of the Martians just outside. They could interpret it as a hostile act.
We didn't matter much, except to ourselves. And our primary objective was to make friendly contact with the beings of this planet, without friction, if it could be done. If we failed, space travel might become a genuine menace to Earth.
At Miller's order, Craig turned on our cabin lights. Miller pressed the controls of our ship's airlock. While its outer valve remained wide, the inner valve unsealed itself and swung slowly toward us. Our air whooshed out.
The opening of that inner valve meant we were letting horror in. We kept out of line of possible fire through the open door.
Our idea was to control our instinctive reactions to strangeness, to remain passive, giving the Martians a chance to get over their own probable terror of us by finding out that we meant no harm. Otherwise we might be murdering each other.
The long wait was agony. In spite of the dehumidifying unit of my spacesuit, I could feel the sweat from my body collecting in puddles in the bottoms of my boots. A dozen times there were soft rustles and scrapes at the airlock; then sounds of hurried retreat.
But at last a mass of gray-pink tendrils intruded over the threshold. And we saw the stalked eyes, faintly luminous in the shadowy interior of the lock. Grotesquely up-ended on its tentacles, the monster seemed to flow into the cabin. Over its mouth-palps was the cup of what must have been its oxygen mask.
What was clearly the muzzle of some kind of pistol, smoothly machined, was held ready by a mass of tendrils that suggested Gorgon hair. Behind the first monster was a second, similarly armed. Behind him was a third. After that I lost count, as the horde, impelled by fear to grab control in one savage rush, spilled into the cabin with a dry-leaf rustle.
All my instincts urged me to yank my automatic out of my belt and let go at that flood of horror. Yes, that was in me, although I'd been in intimate association with Etl for four years. Psychologists say that no will power could keep a man's reflexes from withdrawing his hand from a hot stove for very long. And going for my gun seemed almost a reflex action.
There was plenty of sound logic to back up the urge to shoot. In the presence of the unfathomable, how could you replace the tried defenses of instinct with intellectual ideas of good will?
On the other hand, to shoot now would be suicide and ruin our hopes, besides. So maybe there'd have to be human sacrifices to faith between the planets. If we succeeded in following the plan, our faith would be proven either right or wrong. If we didn't act passively, the failure would be partly our fault. In any case, if we didn't get back to Earth, hatred and fear of the Martians would inevitably arise there, whether it had been the Martians' fault or ours. The message that Miller had left for newscast might only give people the self-righteous attitude that Earthly intentions had been good. If another expedition ever came to Mars, it might shoot any inhabitants on sight, and maybe get wiped out itself.
Still, how could we know that the Martians weren't preparing the kind of invasion of Earth that has been imagined so often? It was a corny notion, but the basis for it remained sound. Mars was a dying world. Couldn't the Martians still want a new planet to move to?
All these old thoughts popped back into my head during that very bad moment. And if I was almost going for my pistol, how much worse was it for Craig, Klein and Miller, who hadn't been as friendly with Etl as I had been? Maybe we should have put our weapons out of our own reach, in preparation for this incident. Then there would have been no danger of our using them.
But any freedom of action was swiftly wrested from us. The Martians rolled over us in a wave. Thousands of dark tendrils with fine, sawlike spines latched onto our bodies. I was glad that I wore a spacesuit, as much from the revulsion I felt at a direct contact as for the small protection it gave against injury.
I am sure that there was panic behind that wild Martian rush. To get us pinned down and helpless quickly, they drove themselves in spite of their own fear of the horrid human forms. For did I feel a tremor in those tendrils, a tendency to recoil from me? I was trembling and sweating. Still, my impressions were vivid. Those monsters held us down as if they were Malay beaters holding down trapped pythons. Maybe they had known beforehand what men looked like--from previous, secret expeditions to Earth. Just as we had known about Martians from Etl. But it wouldn't have made any difference.
Or perhaps they weren't even aware that we were from the neighboring planet. But it would be obvious that we were from another world; nothing from their own planet could be so strange.
Our own reactions to the situation differed a little. Craig gasped curses through his helmet phones. Miller said, "Easy, men! Easy!" It was as if he were trying to build up his own morale, too. I couldn't utter a sound.
It wasn't hard for our captors to recognize our weapons. We were disarmed. They carried us out into the night and around a hill. We were piled onto a flat metallic surface. A vehicle under us began to throb and move; you could have called it a truck. The nature of its mechanism was hinted at only by a small, frosty wisp of steam or vapor up front. Perhaps it came from a leak. The Martians continued to hold us down as savagely as ever. Now and then a pair of them would join the nerve-ends of tendrils, perhaps to converse. Others would chirp or hoot for no reason that I could understand.
The highway rolled away behind us, under the light of Phobos. Buildings passed, vague as buildings along a road usually are at night. It was the same with the clumps of vegetation. Lights, which might have been electrical, flashed into my eyes and passed by. In a deep valley through which we moved in part of our short trip, a dense, stratified fog arose between the lights and me. I noticed with an odd detachment that the fog was composed of minute ice crystals, which glinted in the glow of the strange lamps. I tried to remember our course. I knew that it was generally east. Off in the night there were clangings and hisses that might have been factory noises.
Once Miller asked, "Is everybody okay?"
Klein's and Craig's responses were gruff and unsteady in the phones.