"More or less--if heart-failure doesn't get me."
"I guess our skins are still intact," I said.
We didn't talk after that.
At last we entered a long, downward-slanting tunnel, full of soft luminescence that seemed to come out of the white-tiled walls themselves. My attention grew a little vague. It could be that my mind turned in on itself, like a turtle drawing in its head for protection. In that state of semiconsciousness, I experienced a phantasm. I imagined I was a helpless grub being dragged down into the depths of an ant-hill.
But such a grub belongs in an ant-hill a lot more than a man belonged where I was going. This became plainer when the large tunnel ended, and we were dragged and carried along winding burrows, never more than three feet in diameter. Mostly they were tiled, but often their walls were of bare rock or soil. Twice we passed through air-locks.
I couldn't describe too much of what I saw or the noises I heard in those warrens. In one place, incandescence glowed and wheels turned. In a great low-ceilinged chamber full of artificial sun-rays there was a garden with strange blooms. The architecture of the city was not altogether utilitarian and it was not unpleasing. I saw a lot more. But my mind was somewhat fuzzy, probably from shock and fatigue.
I know we traversed another chamber, where trays full of round lumps of soil were set in frames. A Martian nursery, no doubt.
Some minutes later, my companions and I were left in a small room, high enough so that we could stand erect in it. Here the Martians let go of us. We sprawled on the floor, faces down. We'd had a busy day. Our nerve-energy was burned out.
Hopelessness warped all of my thoughts. I must have slipped into the coma of exhaustion. I had jangled dreams about Alice and the kids and home, and almost imagined I was there.
Half awake again, I had a cursing spree, calling myself fifty kinds of a numbskull. Be passive before the people of other worlds! Reassure them! How did we ever think up that one? We'd been crazy. Why didn't we at least use our guns when we'd had the chance? It wouldn't have made any difference to be killed right away.
Now we were sacrificial lambs on the altar of a featherbrained idea that the inhabitants of worlds that had always been separate from the beginning should become friends, learn to swap and to benefit from the diverse phases of each other's cultures. How could Martians who hatched out of lumps of mud be like humans at all?
Klein, Craig, Miller and I were alone in that room. There were crystal-glazed spy-windows in the walls. Perhaps we were still being observed.
While I was sleeping, the exit had been sealed with a circular piece of glassy stuff. Near the floor there were vents through which air was being forced into the room. Hidden pumps, which must have been hastily rigged for our reception, throbbed steadily.
Miller, beside me, had removed his oxygen helmet. His grin was slightly warped as he said to me: "Well, Nolan, here's another parallel with what we've known before. We had to keep Etl alive in a cage. Now the same thing is being done to us."
This could be regarded as a service, a favor. Yet I was more inclined to feel that I was like something locked up in a zoo. Maybe Etl's case was a little different. For the first thing he had known in life was his cage.
I removed my oxygen helmet, too, mainly to conserve its air-purifier unit, which I hoped I might need sometime soon--in an escape.
"Don't look so glum, Nolan," Miller told me. "Here we have just what we need, a chance to observe and learn and know the Martians better. And it's the same for them in relation to us. It's the best situation possible for both worlds."
I was thinking mostly--belatedly--of my wife and kids. Right then, Miller was a crackpot to me, a monomaniac, a guy whose philosophical viewpoint went way beyond the healthy norm. And I soon found that Craig and Klein agreed with me now. Something in our attitude had shifted.
I don't know how long we were in that sealed room. A week, perhaps. We couldn't see the day-light. Our watches had vanished along with our weapons. Sometimes there were sounds of much movement in the tunnels around us; sometimes little. But the variation was too irregular to indicate a change based on night and day.
Lots of things happened to us. The air we breathed had a chemical smell. And the Martians kept changing its composition and density constantly--experimenting, no doubt. Now it would be oppressively heavy and humid; now it would be so dry and thin that we began to feel faint. They also varied the temperature, from below freezing to Earthly desert heat. And I suspected that at times there was a drug in the air.
Food was lowered to us in metal containers from a circular airlock in the ceiling. It was the same kind of gelatinous stuff that we had found in the wreck of the ship that had brought the infant Etl to Earth. We knew that it was nourishing. Its bland sweetishness was not to our taste, but we had to eat.
Various apparatus was also lowered to us. There were odd mechanical puzzles that made me think how grotesquely Earthly Martian scientific attitudes were. And there was s little globe on a wire, the purpose of which we never figured out, though Miller got an electric shock from it.
I kept looking for Etl among the Martians at the spy-windows, hoping that he'd turn up again. I had noticed that Martians showed variations of appearance, like humans--longer or shorter eye-stalks, lighter or darker tendrils.... I figured I'd recognize Etl. But I didn't see him.
We were none of us quite ourselves. Not even Miller, whose scientific interest in the things around him sustained him even in captivity. Mine had worn out. And Klein and Craig were no better off. I was desperately homesick, and I felt a little ill, besides.
I managed to loosen the metal heel-plate from one of my boots, and with this, when I thought that no Martian was watching, I started to dig the gummy cement from around the circular glassy disc with which the main exit of our quarters had been sealed. Craig, Klein and I worked at it in brief and sporadic shifts. We didn't really hope that we could escape. It was just something to do.
"We're going to try to get to the ship, Miller, if it's still there," I whispered once. "Probably it won't work. Want to join up with the rest of us?"
I just didn't think of him as being in command now. And he seemed to agree, because he didn't protest against my high-handed way of talking. Also, he didn't argue against a projected rashness that could easily get us killed. Apparently he understood that our lives weren't worth much to us as things were.
He smiled a little. "I'll stick around, Nolan. If you do manage to get back to Earth, don't make the Martians sound too bad."
"I won't," I answered, troubled by an odd sense of regret.
Loosening that exit disc proved in the end to be no special trick. Then we just waited for a lull in the activity in the tunnels around us. We all put on our oxygen helmets, Miller included, for the air-pressure here in our "cage" would drop as soon as the loosened disc was dislodged. We put our shoulders against it and pushed. It popped outward. Then the three of us, with Miller staying behind, scrambled on hands and knees through the tunnel that lay before us.
A crazy kind of luck seemed to be with us. For one thing, we didn't have to retrace our way along the complicated route by which we had been brought down to our prison. In a minute we reached a wide tunnel that slanted upward. A glassy rotary airlock worked by a simple lever--for, of course, most of the city's air would be pressurized to some extent for the Martians--led into it.
The main passage wasn't exactly deserted, but we traversed it in leaps and bounds, taking advantage of the weak Martian gravity. Shapes scattered before us, chirping and squeaking.
We reached the surface quickly. It was frigid night. We stumbled away into it, taking cover under some lichenous bushes, while we looked for the highway. It was there, plain to see, in the light of Phobos. We dashed on toward it, across what seemed to be a planted field. A white layer of ice-crystal mist flowed between and over those tough cold-endured growths. For a minute, just as two shots rang out behind us, we were concealed by it completely.
I thought to myself that, to the Martians, we were like escaped tigers or leopards--only worse. For a moment I felt that we had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. But, as we reached the highway, my spirits began to soar. Perhaps--only perhaps--I'd see my family again before too long. There was traffic on the road, trains of great soft-tired wagons, pulled by powered vehicles ahead. I wondered if, like on Earth, much freight was moved at night to avoid congestion.
"When I was a college kid, I used to hitchhike sometimes," Craig remarked.
"I don't guess we had better try that here," Klein said. "What we can do is more of a hobo stunt."
We found the westerly direction we needed easily enough from the stars. The constellations naturally looked the same as they did at home. We hid behind some rustling leaves, dry as paper, and waited for the next truck train to pass. When one came, we used the agility which Martian gravity gave us and rushed for the tail-end wagon and scrambled aboard. There we hid ourselves under a kind of coarse-fibered tarpaulin.
Peering past boxes and bales, we kept cautious watch of the road. We saw strange placques, which might have served as highway signs. Again we saw buildings and passing lights.
We were dopes, of course, ever to think that we were going to get away with this. Our overwrought nerves had urged us to unreasoning rebellion, and we had yielded to them.
Our last hope was punctured when at last we saw the flood-lights that bathed our ship. The taste on my tongue was suddenly bitter. There were roughly three things we could do now, and none of the choices was especially attractive.
We could go back where we had come from. We could try to keep concealed in the countryside, until we were finally hunted down, or until our helmet air-purifiers wore out and we smothered. Or we could proceed to our rocket, which was now surrounded by a horde of Martians. Whichever one we chose, it looked as if the end would be the same--death.
"I'm for going on to the ship," Klein said in a harsh whisper.
"The same with me," Craig agreed. "It's where we want to go. If they're going to kill or capture us, it might as well be there."
Suddenly, for no good reason, I thought of something. No special safeguards had been set up around that sealed room in the city.
Escape had been easy. What did that mean?
"Okay," I said. "Maybe you've both got the same hunch I just got. We walk very slowly toward our rocket. We get into the light as soon as possible. Does that sound right to you? We'd be going back to the plan. And, it could be, to common sense."
"All right," Klein answered.
"We'll give it a whirl," Craig agreed.
We jumped off that freight wagon at the proper moment and moved toward the rocket. Nothing that we'd done on Mars--not even making our first acquaintance with the inhabitants--was as ticklish an act.
Step after slow step, we approached the floodlighted area, keeping close together before that horde which still looked horrible to us. One thing in our favor was that the Martians here had probably been warned of our escape by whatever means of communication they used. And they could certainly guess that our first objective would be our ship. Hence they would not be startled into violence by our sudden appearance.
One of them fired a shot which passed over our heads. But we kept on going, making our movements as unfrightening as we could to counteract the dread of us that they must have still felt.
Panic and the instinctive fear of the strange were balanced in our minds against reason. We got to the nose of our ship, then to the open doors of its airlock. The horde kept moving back before us and we clambered inside. Martian eyes remained wary, but no more action was taken against us.
Our cabin had been ransacked. Most of the loose stuff had been removed ... even my picture of Alice, and our two kids.
"Who cares about trifles?" I muttered. "Rap on wood, guys--I think we've won. So have the local people."
"You're right," Klein breathed. "What other reason can there be for their not jumping us? Miller's passive strategy must've worked the first time. The story that we meant no harm must have gotten around. They don't want to make trouble, either. And who, with any sense does?"
I felt good--maybe too good. I wondered if the Martians felt the same eager fascination for the enigmas of space that we felt, in spite of the same fear of the nameless that we too could feel. My guess was that they did. Undoubtedly they also wanted interplanetary relations to be smooth. They could control their instinctive doubts to help attain this objective. If they coveted Earth's resources, it was still far away, and could defend itself. Besides, they were not built to live in comfort under the raw conditions of its strange environment. Commerce was the only answer.
Suddenly Mars was no longer a hostile region to me, out in the reaches of space. Again it was full of endless, intriguing mysteries. It was beautiful. And knowledge of that beauty and mystery had been won, in spite of some blundering. The scheme that we had practiced, and that Miller had stuck to, had paid off. It had broken down that first inevitable barrier of alienness between Earthmen and Martians enough so that they now had a chance to start looking for the countless similarities between us.
A fraction of our food stores aboard the rocket had been taken, probably for analysis. But there was plenty more. We closed the airlock, repressurized the cabin from air-tanks, and cooked ourselves a meal. Then we slept in shifts, one of us always awake as guard.
At dawn, Miller hammered at a window. He'd been brought out from the city. We weren't too surprised by then.
Etl turned up at noon. He came in a kind of plane, which landed right beside our rocket, making quite a noise. I recognized him easily enough; I'd know those eye-stalks anywhere. Besides, as he came out of the plane, he was carrying the speech-tube that Klein had made for him.
We let him into the cabin. "Hello, gang," he said, manipulating the tube with his tendrils. "I see you passed your tests almost as well as I did on those weird things you were always making me take on Earth."
"So they were tests," I said.
"Sure. Otherwise, why do you think I didn't come to you before? They said you had to solve your own problems."
"How did they treat you?" Miller wanted to know.
"Mostly my people were nice to me. They took me to a great desert city, far away. Sort of the capital of Mars. It's in an 'oasis' where a network of 'canals' join. The canals fit an old theory of your astronomers. They're ribbons of irrigated vegetation. But the water is piped underground. I spoke to my people in the way that you once thought I would, trying to convince them that you were okay. But I guess that you did most of the job yourselves."
"In spite of a lot of blunders, maybe we did, Etl," I replied dryly. "What are your plans? Going to stay here now? Or will you come back with us?"
I sensed that he would stay. It was natural. Maybe I even sensed a remoteness in him, a kind of withdrawal. Not unfriendly, but ... we both knew it was the parting of the ways.
"It's best for what we're trying to accomplish, Nolan," he said. "I can tell my people about Earth; you can tell yours about Mars. Besides, I like it here. But I'll be back on Earth some time. Just so you'll come here again. Thanks to you guys for everything."
"I'd like to stay too, Nolan," Miller said, smiling. "If they'll have me. Under Etl's instructions, they might improve my quarters."
So that much was settled. I felt a certain longing myself now. But I'm a family man, with home still in my blood. Klein and Craig weren't tied as I was, but they had a lot to hold them to Earth. Besides, somebody had to report back.
We were on Mars two days longer, though we didn't go any farther than back to the neighboring city. We took thousands of photographs. We were given samples of common Martian apparatus, pieces of jade that were covered with queer, beautiful carvings made millions of years before, bars of radioactive metal.
Earth was still near enough in its orbit to be reached without too much trouble. We jacked our rocket into a vertical position, from which an interplanetary takeoff could best be made. The cabin, swinging on its universal joints, stayed level. Martians watched, interested, but still obviously not quite ready to cast aside their deeper suspicions. Yet, when we blasted clear, we knew that a ship of theirs, halfway around the planet, was doing the same and would follow us back to Earth. Ambassadors, of course, and commercial attaches.
I'd lost my picture of Alice, Patty and Ron to some local souvenir hunter. But I knew that I was going to see them....
The friendly contact between Earth and Mars can still be queered by somebody's silly blunder, of course. Human or Martian. You have to be careful. But a beginning has been made.
CARD ... TRICK.
By Randall Garrett The game was stud. There were seven at the table, which makes for good poker. Outside of Nick, who banked the game, nobody looked familiar. They all had the beat look of compulsive gamblers, fogged over by their individual attempts at a poker face. They were a cagey-looking lot. Only one of them was within ten years of my age.
"Just in case, gamblers," the young one said. I looked up from stacking the chips I had just bought from Nick. The speaker was a skinny little guy with a sharp chin and more freckles than I'd like to have.
"If any one of you guys has any psi powers," the sharp-chinned gambler said sourly, "you better beat it. All gamblers here will recoup double their losses from any snake we catch using psi powers to beat the odds."
He shot a hard eyed look around a room not yet dimmed by cigar smoke. I got the most baleful glare, I thought. He didn't need to worry. I'd been certified Normal by an expert that very evening.
The expert was Dr. Shari King, whom I had taken to dinner before joining the game at Nick's. It had gotten to be a sort of weekly date--although this night had given signs of being the last one. For a while that spring, desoxyribonucleic acid had begun to take second place in my heart. This is a pitiful admission for a biochemist to make--DNA should be the cornerstone of his life. But Shari was something rare--a gorgeous woman, if somewhat distant, who was thoroughly intelligent. She had already earned her doctorate, while I was still struggling with the tag ends of my thesis.
"Poker, Tex?" Shari had asked, when the waitress was bringing dessert. "Is this becoming a problem? You've played every night this week."
"No problem, Shari," I said. "I'm winning, and I see no point in not pocketing all that found money."
"Compulsive gambling is a sickness," she said, looking at me thoughtfully. She was wearing a shirtwaist and skirt that had the bright colors and fullness you associate with peasant dress.
"The only sick thing about me is my bank account," I grinned, relishing her dark, romantic quality. "I need the dough, Shari. I've got a thesis to finish if I ever want to get a job teaching."
Her thick eyebrows fluttered upward, a danger signal I had learned to look for. "That's a childish rationalization, Tex," she said with a lot more sharpness than I had expected. "There are certainly other ways to get money!"
"So I'm not as smart as you," I told her.
"Smart?" She didn't think I was tracking.
"I wasn't as shrewd as you were in picking my parents," I said. "Mine never had much, and left me less than that when they died."