Large though it may loom
I can ignore a problem in full bloom
Until my demon comes in the room
To chase me with the pitchfork of doom
Sookie Stackhouse gets more for her birthday than she expected.
A SMATTERING OF MATTERING
I began playing Scrabble online
When I first began it Mattered
It Mattered very much
My heart would race during a close game
If I won
I was gloriously triumphant
If I lost
I was incensed with the defeat
I have played this game with the same bunch of women
Sometimes I win
Sometimes I lose
(Much depends on "letter luck")
Occasionally I make a brilliant move
Occasionally I make a foolish move
But the most interesting thing to me
Is that now it barely matters
My heart does not pound
Winning and losing are both fine
The game is still fun and challenging
My neurons fire on cue
But it doesn't really Matter
Did I like it better when it Mattered?
Because it had control over me
Now I have control over it
Because it barely Matters to me
Whether I win or lose
Skunks don't spray themselves with stink
Rattlesnakes don't bite themselves injecting venom
Lions don't tear themselves apart with their fearsome claws
So it is unnatural for us to berate ourselves
Call ourselves horrible names
Or intentionally hurt ourselves in any way
by Eric Frank Russell
The first Martian vessel descended upon Earth with the slow, stately fall of a grounded balloon. It did resemble a large balloon in that it was spherical and had a strange buoyance out of keeping with its metallic construction. Beyond this superficial appearance all similarity to anything Terrestrial ceased.
There were no rockets, no crimson Venturis, no external projections other than several solaradiant distorting grids which boosted the ship in any desired direction through the cosmic field. There were no observation ports. All viewing was done through a transparent band running right around the fat belly of the sphere. The bluish, nightmarish crew was assembled behind that band, surveying the world with great multifaceted eyes.
They gazed through the band in utter silence as they examined this world which was Terra. Even if they had been capable of speech they would have said nothing. But none among them had a talkative faculty in any sonic sense. At this quiet moment none needed it.
The scene outside was one of untrammeled desolation. Scraggy blue-green grass clung to tired ground right away to the horizon scarred by ragged mountains. Dismal bushes struggled for life here and there, some with the pathetic air of striving to become trees as once their ancestors had been. To the right, a long, straight scar through the grass betrayed the sterile lumpiness of rocks at odd places. Too rugged and too narrow ever to have been a road, it suggested no more than the desiccating remnants of a long-gone wall. And over all this loomed a ghastly sky.
Captain Skhiva eyed his crew, spoke to them with his sign-talking tentacle. The alternative was contact-telepathy which required physical touch.
“It is obvious that we are out of luck. We could have done no worse had we landed on the empty satellite. However, it is safe to go out. Anyone who wishes to explore a little while may do so.”
One of them gesticulated back at him. “Captain, don’t you wish to be the first to step upon this world?”
“It is of no consequence. If anyone deems it an honor, he is welcome to it.” He pulled the lever opening both air-lock doors. Thicker, heavier ah- crowded in and pressure went up a little. “Beware of overexertion,” he warned as they went out.
Poet Pander touched him, tentacles tip to tip as he sent his thoughts racing through their nerve ends. “This confirms all that we saw as we approached. A stricken planet far gone in its death throes. What do you suppose caused it?”
“I have not the remotest idea. I would like to know. If it has been smitten by natural forces, what might they do to Mars?” His troubled mind sent its throb of worry up Pander’s contacting tentacle. “A pity that this planet had not been farther out instead of closer in; we might then have observed the preceding phenomena from the surface of Mars. It is so difficult properly to view this one against the Sun.”
“That applies still more to the next world, the misty one,” observed Poet Pander.
“I know it. I am beginning to fear what we may find there. If it proves to be equally dead, then we are stalled until we can make the big jump outward.”
“Which won’t be in our lifetimes.”
“I doubt it,” agreed Captain Skhiva. “We might move fast with the help of friends. We shall be slow—alone.” He turned to watch his crew writhing in various directions across the grim landscape. “They find it good to be on firm ground. But what is a world without life and beauty? In a short time they will grow tired of it.”
Pander said thoughtfully, “Nevertheless, I would like to see more of it. May I take out the lifeboat?”
“You are a songbird, not a pilot,” reproved Captain Skhiva. “Your function is to maintain morale by entertaining us, not to roam around in a lifeboat.”
“But I know how to handle it. Every one of us was trained to handle it. Let me take it that I may see more.”
“Haven’t we seen enough, even before we landed? What else is there to see? Cracked and distorted roads about to dissolve into nothingness. Ages-old cities, torn and broken, crumbling into dust. Shattered mountains and charred forests and craters little smaller than those upon the Moon. No sign of any superior lifeform still surviving. Only the grass, the shrubs, and various animals, two- or four-legged, that flee at our approach. Why do you wish to see more?”
“There is poetry even in death,” said Fander.
“Even so, it remains repulsive.” Skhiva gave a little shiver. “All right. Take the lifeboat. Who am I to question the weird workings of the nontechnical mind?”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“It is nothing. See that you are back by dusk.” Breaking contact, he went to the lock, curled snakishly on its outer rim and brooded, still without bothering to touch the new world. So much attempted, so much done—for so poor reward.
He was still pondering it when the lifeboat soared out of its lock. Expressionlessly, his multifaceted eyes watched the energized grids change angle as the boat swung into a curve and floated away like a little bubble. Skhiva was sensitive to futility.
The crew came back well before darkness. A few hours were enough. Just grass and shrubs and child-trees straining to grow up. One had discovered a grassless oblong that once might have been the site of a dwelling. He brought back a small piece of its foundation, a lump of perished concrete which Skhiva put by for later analysis.
Another had found a small, brown, six-legged insect, but his nerve ends had heard it crying when he picked it up, so hastily he had put it down and let it go free. Small, clumsily moving animals had been seen hopping in the distance, but all had dived down holes in the ground before any Martian could get near. All the crew were agreed upon one thing: the silence and solemnity of a people’s passing was unendurable.
Pander beat the sinking of the sun by half a time-unit. His bubble drifted under a great, black cloud, sank to ship level, came in. The rain started a moment later, roaring down in frenzied torrents while they stood behind the transparent band and marveled at so much water.
After a while, Captain Skhiva told them, “We must accept what we find. We have drawn a blank. The cause of this world’s condition is a mystery to be solved by others with more time and better equipment. It is for us to abandon this graveyard and try the misty planet. We will take off early in the morning.”
None commented, but Pander followed him to his room, made contact with a tentacle-touch.
“One could live here, Captain.”
“I am not so sure of that.” Skhiva coiled on his couch, suspending his tentacles on the various limb-rests. The blue sheen of him was reflected by the back wall. “In some places are rocks emitting alpha sparks. They are dangerous.”
“Of course, Captain. But I can sense them and avoid them.”
“You?” Skhiva stared up at him.
“Yes, Captain. I wish to be left here.”
“What? In this place of appalling repulsiveness?”
“It has an all-pervading air of ugliness and despair,” admitted Poet Pander. “All destruction is ugly. But by accident I have found a little beauty. It heartens me. I would like to seek its source.”
“To what beauty do you refer?” Skhiva demanded.
Pander tried to explain the alien in nonalien terms.
“Draw it for me,” ordered Skhiva.
Pander drew it, gave him the picture, said, “There!”
Gazing at it for a long time, Skhiva handed it back, mused awhile, then spoke along the other’s nerves. “We are individuals with all the rights of individuals. As an individual, I don’t think that picture sufficiently beautiful to be worth the tail-tip of a domestic arlan. I will admit that it is not ugly, even that it is pleasing.”
“As an individual,” Skhiva went on, “you have an equal right to your opinions, strange though they may be. If you really wish to stay I cannot refuse you. I am entitled only to think you a little crazy.” He eyed Pander again. “When do you hope to be picked up?”
“This year, next year, sometime, never.”
“It may well be never,” Skhiva reminded him. “Are you prepared to face that prospect?”
“One must always be prepared to face the consequences of his own actions,” Pander pointed out.
“True.” Skhiva was reluctant to surrender. “But have you given the matter serious thought?”
“I am a nontechnical component. I am not guided by thought.”
“Then by what?”
“By my desires, emotions, instincts. By my inward feelings.”
Skhiva said fervently, “The twin moons preserve us!”
“Captain, sing me a song of home and play me the tinkling harp.”
“Don’t be silly. I have not the ability.”
“Captain, if it required no more than careful thought you would be able to do it?”
“Doubtlessly,” agreed Skhiva, seeing the trap but unable to avoid it.
“There you are!” said Pander pointedly.
“I give up. I cannot argue with someone who casts aside the accepted rules of logic and invents his own. You are governed by notions that defeat me.”
“It is not a matter of logic or illogic,” Pander told him. “It is merely a matter of viewpoint. You see certain angles; I see others.”
“You won’t pin me down that way. I can find examples. For instance, do you remember the formula for determining the phase of a series tuned circuit?”
“I felt sure you would. You are a technician. You have registered it for all tune as a matter of technical utility.” He paused, staring at Skhiva. “I know that formula, too. It was mentioned to me, casually, many years ago. It is of no use to me—yet I have never forgotten it.”
“Because it holds the beauty of rhythm. It is a poem,” Pander explained.
Skhiva sighed and said, “I don’t get it.”
“One upon R into omega L minus one upon omega C,” recited Pander. “A perfect hexameter.” He showed his amusement as the other rocked back.
After a while, Skhiva remarked, “It could be sung. One could dance to it.”
“Same with this.” Pander exhibited his rough sketch. “This holds beauty. Where there is beauty there once was talent—may still be talent for all we know. Where talent abides is also greatness. In the realms of greatness we may find powerful friends. We need such friends.”
“You win.” Skhiva made a gesture of defeat. “We leave you to your self-chosen fate in the morning.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
That same streak of stubbornness which made Skhiva a worthy commander induced him to take one final crack at Pander shortly before departure. Summoning him to his room, he eyed the poet calculatingly.
“You are still of the same mind?”
“Then does it not occur to you as strange that I should be so content to abandon this planet if indeed it does hold the remnants of greatness?”
“Why not?” Skhiva stiffened slightly.
“Captain, I think you are a little afraid because you suspect what I suspect—that there was no natural disaster. They did it themselves, to themselves.”
“We have no proof of it,” said Skhiva uneasily.
“No, Captain.” Pander paused there without desire to add more.
“If this is their- own sad handiwork,” Skhiva commented at length, “what are our chances of finding friends among people so much to be feared?”
“Poor,” admitted Pander. “But that—being the product of cold thought—means little to me. I am animated by warm hopes.”
’There you go again, blatantly discarding reason in favor of an idle dream. Hoping, hoping, hoping—to achieve the impossible.”
Pander said, “The difficult can be done at once; the impossible takes a little longer.”
“Your thoughts make my orderly mind feel lopsided. Every remark is a flat denial of something that makes sense.” Skhiva transmitted the sensation of a lugubrious chuckle. “Oh, well, we live and learn.” He came forward, moving closer to the other. “All your supplies are assembled outside. Nothing remains but to bid you goodbye.”
They embraced in the Martian manner. Leaving the lock, Poet Pander watched the big sphere shudder and glide up. It soared without sound, shrinking steadily until it was a mere dot entering a cloud. A moment later it had gone.
He remained there, looking at the cloud, for a long, long tune. Then he turned his attention to the load-sled holding his supplies. Climbing onto its tiny, exposed front seat, he shifted the control which energized the flotation-grids, let it rise a few feet. The higher the rise the greater the expenditure of power. He wished to conserve power; there was no knowing how long he might need it. So at low altitude and gentle pace he let the sled glide in the general direction of the thing of beauty.
Later, he found a dry cave in the hill on which his objective stood. It took him two days of careful, cautious raying to square its walls, ceiling and floor, plus half a day with a powered fan driving out silicate dust. After that, he stowed his supplies at the back, parked the sled near the front, set up a curtaining force-screen across the entrance. The hole in the hill was now home.
Slumber did not come easily that first night. He lay within the cave, a ropy, knotted thing of glowing blue with enormous, beelike eyes, and found himself listening for harps that played sixty million miles away. His tentacle-ends twitched in involuntary search of the telepathic-contact songs that would go with the harps, and twitched in vain. Darkness grew deep, and all the world a monstrous stillness held. His hearing organs craved for the eventide flip-flop of sand-frogs, but there were no frogs. He wanted the homely drone of night beetles, but none droned. Except for once when something faraway howled its heart at the Moon, there was nothing, nothing.
In the morning he washed, ate, took out the sled and explored the site of a small town. He found little to satisfy his curiosity, no more than mounds of shapeless rubble on ragged, faintly oblong foundations. It was a graveyard of long-dead domiciles, rotting, weedy, near to complete oblivion. A view from five hundred feet up gave him only one piece of information: the orderliness of outlines showed that these people had been tidy, methodical.
But tidiness is not beauty in itself. He came back to the top of his hill and sought solace with the thing that was beauty.
His explorations continued, not systematically as Skhiva would have performed them, but in accordance with his own mercurial whims. At times he saw many animals, singly or in groups, none resembling anything Martian. Some scattered at full gallop when his sled swooped over them. Some dived into groundholes, showing a brief flash of white, absurd tails, Others, four-footed, long-faced, sharp-toothed, hunted” in gangs and bayed at him in concert with harsh, defiant voices.
On the seventieth day, in a deep, shadowed glade to the north, he spotted a small group of new shapes slinking along* in single file. He recognized them at a glance, knew them so well that his searching eyes sent an immediate thrill of triumph into his mind. They were ragged, dirty, and no more than half grown, but the thing of beauty had told him what they were.
Hugging the ground low, he swept around in a wide curve that brought him to the farther end of the glade. His sled sloped slightly into the drop as it entered the glade. He could see them better now, even the soiled pinkishness of their thin legs. They were moving away from him, with fearful caution, but the silence of his swoop gave them no warning.
The rearmost one of the stealthy file fooled him at the last moment. He was hanging over the side of the sled, tentacles outstretched in readiness to snatch the end one with the wild mop of yellow hair when, responding to some sixth sense, his intended victim threw itself flat. His grasp shot past a couple of feet short, and he got a glimpse of frightened gray eyes two seconds before a dexterous side-tilt of the sled enabled him to make good his loss by grabbing the less wary next in line.
This one was dark haired, a bit bigger, and sturdier. It fought madly at his holding limbs while he gained altitude. Then suddenly, realizing the queer nature of its bonds, it writhed around and looked straight at him. The result was unexpected; it closed its eyes and went completely limp.
It was still limp when he bore it into the cave, but its heart continued to beat and its lungs to draw. Laying it carefully on the softness of his bed, he moved to the cave’s entrance and waited for it to recover. Eventually it stirred, sat up, gazed confusedly at the facing wall. Its black eyes moved slowly around, taking in the surroundings. Then they saw Pander. They widened tremendously, and their owner began to make highpitched, unpleasant noises as it tried to back away through the solid wall. It screamed so much, in one rising throb after another, that Pander slithered out of the cave, right out of sight, and sat in the cold winds until the noises had died down.
A couple of hours later he made cautious reappearance to offer it food, but its reaction was so swift, hysterical, and heartrending that he dropped his load and hid himself as though the fear was his own. The food remained untouched for two full days. On the third, a little of it was eaten. Pander ventured within.
Although the Martian did not go near, the boy cowered away, murmuring, “Devil! Devil!” His eyes were red, with dark discoloration beneath them.
“Devil!” thought Pander, totally unable to repeat the alien word, but wondering what it meant. He used his sign-talking tentacle in valiant effort to convey something reassuring. The attempt was wasted. The other watched its writhings half in fear, half with distaste, and showed complete lack of comprehension. He let the tentacle gently slither forward across the floor, hoping to make thought-contact. The other recoiled from it as from a striking snake.
“Patience,” he reminded himself. “The impossible takes a little longer.”
Periodically he showed himself with food and drink, and nighttimes he slept fitfully on the coarse, damp grass beneath lowering skies—while the prisoner who was his guest enjoyed the softness of the bed, the warmth of the cave, the security of the force-screen.
Time came when Pander betrayed an unpoetic shrewdness by using the other’s belly to estimate the ripeness of the moment. When, on the eighth day, he noted that his food-offerings were now being taken regularly, he took a meal of his own at the edge of the cave, within plain sight, and observed that the other’s appetite was not spoiled. That night he slept just within the cave, close to the force-screen, and as far from the boy as possible. The boy stayed awake late, watching him, always watching him, but gave way to slumber in the small hours.
A fresh attempt at sign-talking brought no better results than before, and the boy still refused to touch his offered tentacle. All the same, he was gaining ground slowly. His overtures still were rejected, but with less revulsion. Gradually, ever so gradually, the Martian shape was becoming familiar, almost acceptable.
The sweet savor of success was Pander’s in the middle of the next day. The boy had displayed several spells of emotional sickness during which he lay on his front with shaking body and emitted low noises while his eyes watered profusely. At such times the Martian felt strangely helpless and inadequate. On this occasion, during another attack, he took advantage of the sufferer’s lack of attention and slid near enough to snatch away the box by the bed.
From the box he drew his tiny electroharp, plugged its connectors, switched it on, touched its strings with delicate affection. Slowly he began to play, singing an accompaniment deep inside himself. For he had no voice with which to sing out loud, but the harp sang it for him. The boy ceased his quiverings, sat up, all his attention upon the dexterous play of the tentacles and the music they conjured forth. And when he judged that at last the listener’s mind was captured, Fonder ceased with easy, quietening strokes, gently offered him the harp. The boy registered interest and reluctance. Careful not to move nearer, not an inch nearer, Pander offered it at full tentacle length. The boy had to take four steps to get it. He took them.
That was the start. They played together, day after day and sometimes a little into the night, while almost imperceptibly the distance between them was reduced. Finally they sat together, side by side, and the boy had not yet learned to laugh but no longer did he show unease. He could now extract a simple tune from the instrument and was pleased with his own aptitude in a solemn sort of way.
One evening as darkness grew, and the things that sometimes howled at the Moon were howling again, Pander offered his tentacle-tip for the hundredth time. Always the gesture had been unmistakable even if its motive was not clear, yet always it had been rebuffed. But now, now, five fingers curled around it in shy desire to please.
With a fervent prayer that human nerves would function just like Martian ones, Pander poured his thoughts through, swiftly, lest the warm grip be loosened too soon.
“Do not fear me. I cannot help my shape any more than you can help yours. I am your friend, your father, your mother. I need you as much as you need me.”
The boy let go of him, began quiet, half-stifled whimpering noises. Pander put a tentacle on his shoulder, made little patting motions that he imagined were wholly Martian. For some inexplicable reason, this made matters worse. At his wits’ end what to do for the best, what action to take that might be understandable in Terrestrial terms, he gave the problem up, surrendered to his instinct, put a long, ropy limb around the boy and held him close until the noises ceased and slumber came. It was then he realized the child he had taken was much younger than he had estimated. He nursed nun through the night.
Much practice was necessary to make conversation. The boy had to learn to put mental drive behind his thoughts, for it was beyond Pander’s power to suck them out of him.
“What is your name?”
Pander got a picture of thin legs running rapidly.
He returned it in question form. “Speedy?”
“What name do you call me?”
An unflattering montage of monsters.
The picture whirled around, became confused. There was a trace of embarrassment.
“Devil will do,” assured Pander. He went on, “Where are your parents?”
“You must have had parents. Everyone has a father and mother, haven’t they? Don’t you remember yours?”
Muddled ghost-pictures. Grown-ups leaving children. Grown-ups avoiding children, as if they feared them.
“What is the first thing you remember?”
“Big man walking with me. Carried me a bit. Walked again.”
“What happened to him?”
“Went away. Said he was sick. Might make me sick too.”
Pander changed his aim. “What of those other children—have they no parents either?”
“All got nobody.”
“But you’ve got somebody now, haven’t you, Speedy?”
Pander pushed it farther. “Would you rather have me, or those other children?” He let it rest a moment before he added, “Or both?”
“Both,” said Speedy with no hesitation. His fingers toyed with the harp.
“Would you like to help me look for them tomorrow and bring them here? And if they are scared of me will you help them not to be afraid?”
“Sure!” said Speedy, licking his lips and sticking his chest out.
“Then,” said Pander, “perhaps you would like to go for a walk today? You’ve been too long in this cave. Will you come for a walk with me?”
Side by side they went a short walk, one trotting rapidly along, the other slithering. The child’s spirits perked up with this trip in the open; it was as if the sight of the sky and the feel of the grass made him realize at last that he was not exactly a prisoner. His formerly solemn features became animated, he made exclamations that Pander could not understand, and once he laughed at nothing for the sheer joy of it. On two occasions he grabbed a tentacle-tip in order to tell Pander something, performing the action as if it were in every way as natural as his own speech.
They got out the load-sled in the morning. Pander took the front seat and the controls; Speedy squatted behind him with hands gripping his harness-belt. With a shallow soar, they headed for the glade. Many small, white-tailed animals bolted down holes as they passed over.
“Good for dinner,” remarked Speedy, touching him and speaking through the touch.
Pander felt sickened. Meat-eaters! It was not until a queer feeling of shame and apology came back at him that he knew the other had felt his revulsion. He wished he’d been swift to blanket that reaction before the boy could sense it, but he could not be blamed for the effect of so bald a statement taking him so completely unaware. However, it had produced another step forward in their mutual relationship—Speedy desired his good opinion.
Within fifteen minutes they struck it lucky. At a point half a mile south of the glade Speedy let out a shrill yell and pointed downward. A small, golden-haired figure was standing there on a slight rise, staring fascinatedly upward at the phenomenon in the sky. A second tiny shape, with red but equally long hair, was at the bottom of the slope gazing in similar wonderment. Both came to their senses and turned to flee as the sled tilted toward them.
Ignoring the yelps of excitement close behind him and the pulls upon his belt, Pander swooped, got first one, then the other. This left him with only one limb to right the sled and gain height. If the victims had fought he would have had his work cut out to make it. They did not fight. They shrieked as he snatched them and then relaxed with closed eyes.
The sled climbed, glided a mile at five hundred feet. Pander’s attention was divided between his limp prizes, the controls and the horizon when suddenly a thunderous rattling sounded on the metal base on the sled, the entire framework shuddered, a strip of metal flew from its leading edge and things made whining sounds toward the clouds.
“Old Graypate,” bawled Speedy, jigging around but keeping away from the rim. “He’s shooting at us.”
The spoken words meant nothing to the Martian, and he could not spare a limb for the contact the other had forgotten to make. Grimly righting the sled, he gave it full power. Whatever damage it had suffered had not affected its efficiency; it shot forward at a pace that set the red and golden hair of the captives streaming in the wind. Perforce his landing by the cave was clumsy. The sled bumped down and lurched across forty yards of grass.
First things first. Taking the quiet pair into the cave, he made them comfortable on the bed, came out and examined the sled. There were half a dozen deep dents in its flat underside, two bright furrows angling across one rim. He made contact with Speedy.
“What were you trying to tell me?”
“Old Graypate shot at us.”
The mind-picture burst upon him vividly and with electrifying effect: a vision of a tall, white-haired, stern-faced old man with a tubular weapon propped upon his shoulder while it spat fire upward. A white-haired old man! An adult!
His grip was tight on the other’s arm. “What is this oldster to you?”
“Nothing much. He lives near us in the shelters.”
Picture of a long, dusty concrete burrow, badly damaged, its ceiling marked with the scars of a lighting system which had rotted away to nothing. The old man living hermitlike at one end; the children at the other. The old man was sour, taciturn, kept the children at a distance, spoke to them seldom but was quick to respond when they were menaced. He had guns. Once he had killed many wild dogs that had eaten two children.
“People left us near shelters because Old Graypate was there, and had guns,” informed Speedy.
“But why does he keep away from children? Doesn’t he like children?”
“Don’t know.” He mused a moment. “Once told us that old people could get very sick and make young ones sick—and then we’d all die. Maybe he’s afraid of making us die.” Speedy wasn’t very sure about it.
So there was some much-feared disease around, something contagious, to which adults were peculiarly susceptible. Without hesitation they abandoned their young at the first onslaught, hoping that at least the children would live. Sacrifice after sacrifice that the remnants of the race might survive. Heartbreak after heartbreak as elders chose death alone rather than death together.
Yet Graypate himself was depicted as very old. Was this an exaggeration of the child-mind?
“I must meet Graypate.”
“He will shoot,” declared Speedy positively. “He knows by now that you took me. He saw you take the others. He will wait for you and shoot.”
“We will find some way to avoid that.”
“When these two have become my friends, just as you have become my friend, I will take all three of you back to the shelters. You can find Graypate for me and tell him that I am not as ugly as I look.”
“I don’t think you’re ugly,” denied Speedy.
The picture Pander got along with that gave him the weirdest sensation of pleasure. It was of a vague, shadowy but distorted body with a clear human face.
The new prisoners were female. Pander knew it without being told because they were daintier than Speedy and had the warm, sweet smell of females. That meant complications. Maybe they were mere children, and maybe they lived together in the shelter, but he was permitting none of that while they were in his charge. Pander might be outlandish by other standards but he had a certain primness. Forthwith he cut another and smaller cave for Speedy and himself.
Neither of the girls saw him for two days. Keeping well out of their sight, he let Speedy take them food, talk to them, prepare them for the shape of the thing to come. On the third day he presented himself for inspection at a distance. Despite forewarnings they went sheet-white, clung together, but uttered no distressing sounds. He played his harp a little while, withdrew, came back in the evening and played for them again.
Encouraged by Speedy’s constant and self-assured flow of propaganda, one of them grasped a tentacle-tip next day. What came along the nerves was not a picture so much as an ache, a desire, a childish yearning. Pander backed out of the cave, found wood, spent the whole night using the sleepy Speedy as a model, and fashioned the wood into a tiny, jointed semblance of a human being. He was no sculptor, but he possessed a natural delicacy of touch, and the poet in him ran through his limbs and expressed itself in the model. Making a thorough job of it, he clothed it in Terrestrial fashion, colored its face, fixed upon its features the pleasure-grimace which humans call a smile.
He gave her the doll the moment she awakened in the morning. She took it eagerly, hungrily, with wide, glad eyes. Hugging it to her unformed bosom, she crooned over it—and he knew that the strange emptiness within her was gone.
Though Speedy was openly contemptuous of this manifest waste of effort, Pander set to and made a second mannikin. It did not take quite as long. Practice on the first had made him swifter, more dexterous. He was able to present it to the other child by midafternoon. Her acceptance was made with shy grace, she held the doll close as if it meant more than the whole of her sorry world. In her thrilled concentration upon the gift, she did not notice his nearness, his closeness, and when he offered a tentacle, she took it.
He said, simply, “I love you.”
Her mind was too untrained to drive a response, but her great eyes warmed.
Pander sat on the grounded sled at a point a mile east of the glade and watched the three children walk hand in hand toward the hidden shelters. Speedy was the obvious leader, hurrying them onward, bossing them with the noisy assurance of one who has been around and considers himself sophisticated. In spite of this, the girls paused at intervals to turn and wave to the ropy, bee-eyed thing they’d left behind. And Pander dutifully waved back, always using his signal-tentacle because it had not occurred to him that any tentacle would serve.
They sank from sight behind a rise of ground. He remained on the sled, his multifaceted gaze going over his surroundings or studying the angry sky now threatening rain. The ground was a dull, dead gray-green all the way to the horizon. There was no relief from that drab color, not one shining patch of white, gold, or crimson such as dotted the meadows of Mars. There was only the eternal gray-green and his own brilliant blueness.
Before long a sharp-faced, four-footed thing revealed itself in the grass, raised its head and howled at him. The sound was an eerily urgent wail that ran across the grasses and moaned into the distance. It brought others of its kind, two, ten, twenty. Their defiance increased with then- numbers until there was a large band of them edging toward him with lips drawn back, teeth exposed. Then there came a sudden and undetectable flock-command which caused them to cease their slinking and spring forward like one, slavering as they came. They did it with the hungry, red-eyed frenzy of animals motivated by something akin to madness.
Repulsive though it was, the sight of creatures craving for meat—even strange blue meat—did not bother Pander. He slipped a control a notch, the flotation grids radiated, the sled soared twenty feet. So calm and easy an escape so casually performed infuriated the wild dog pack beyond all measure. Arriving beneath the sled, they made futile springs upward, fell back upon one another, bit and slashed each other, leaped again and again. The pandemonium they set up was a compound of snarls, yelps, barks, and growls, the ferocious expressions of extreme hate. They exuded a pungent odor of dry hair and animal sweat.
Reclining on the sled in a maddening pose of disdain, Fander let the insane ones rave below. They raced around in tight circles shrieking insults at him and biting each other. This went on for some time and ended with a spurt of ultra-rapid cracks from the direction of the glade. Eight dogs fell dead. Two flopped and struggled to crawl away. Ten yelped in agony, made off on three legs. The unharmed ones flashed away to some place where they could make a meal of the escaping limpers. Pander lowered the sled.
Speedy stood on the rise with Graypate. The latter restored his weapon to the crook of his arm, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, ambled forward.
Stopping five yards from the Martian, the old Earthman again massaged his chin whiskers, then said, “It sure is the darnedest thing, just the darnedest thing!”
“No use talking at him,” advised Speedy. “You’ve got to touch him, like I told you.”
“I know, I know.” Graypate betrayed a slight impatience. “All in good time. I’ll touch him when I’m ready.” He stood there, gazing at Pander with eyes that were very pale and very sharp. “Oh, well, here goes.” He offered a hand.
Fander placed a tentacle-end in it.
“Jeepers, he’s cold,” commented Graypate, closing his grip. “Colder than a snake.”
“He isn’t a snake,” Speedy contradicted fiercely.
“Ease up, ease up—I didn’t say he is.” Graypate seemed fond of repetitive phrases.
“He doesn’t feel like one, either,” persisted Speedy, who had never felt a snake and did not wish to.
Fander boosted a thought through. “I come from the fourth planet. Do you know what that means?”
“I ain’t ignorant,” snapped Graypate aloud.
“No need to reply vocally. I receive your thoughts exactly as you receive mine. Your responses are much stronger than the boy’s, and I can understand you easily.”
“Humph!” said Graypate to the world at large.
“I have been anxious to find an adult because the children can tell me little. I would like to ask questions. Do you feel inclined to answer questions?”
“It depends,” answered Graypate, becoming leery.
“Never mind. Answer them if you wish. My only desire is to help you.”
“Why?” asked Graypate, searching around for a percentage.
“We need intelligent friends.”
“Our numbers are small, our resources poor. In visiting this world and the misty one we’ve come near to the limit of our ability. But with assistance we could go farther. I think that if we could help you a time might come when you could help us.”
Graypate pondered it cautiously, forgetting that the inward workings of his mind were wide open to the other. Chronic suspicion was the keynote of his thoughts, suspicion based on life experiences and recent history. But inward thoughts ran both ways, and his own mind detected the clear sincerity in Pander’s.
So he said. “Fair enough. Say more.”
“What caused all this?” inquired Pander, waving a limb at the world.
“War,” said Graypate. “The last war we’ll ever have. The entire place went nuts.”
“How did that come about?”
“You’ve got me there.” Graypate gave the problem grave consideration. “I reckon it wasn’t just any one thing; it was a multitude of things sort of piling themselves up.”
“Differences in people. Some were colored differently in their bodies, others in their ideas, and they couldn’t get along. Some bred faster than others, wanted more room, more food. There wasn’t any more room or more food. The world was full, and nobody could shove in except by pushing another out. My old man told me plenty before he died, and he always maintained that if folk had had the boss-sense to keep their numbers down, there might not—”
“Your old man?” interjected Pander. “Your father? Didn’t all this occur in your own lifetime?”
“It did not. I saw none of it. I am the son of the son of a survivor.”
“Let’s go back to the cave,” put in Speedy, bored with the silent contact-talk. “I want to show him our harp.”
They took no notice, and Pander went on, “Do you think there might be a lot of others still living?”
“Who knows?” Graypate was moody about it. “There isn’t any way of telling how many are wandering around the other side of the globe, maybe still killing each other, or starving to death, or dying of the sickness.”
“What sickness is this?”
“I couldn’t tell what it is called.” Graypate scratched his head confusedly. “My old man told me a few times, but I’ve long forgotten. Knowing the name wouldn’t do me any good, see? He said his father told him that it was part of the war, it got invented and was spread deliberately—and it’s still with us.”
“What are its symptoms?”
“You go hot and dizzy. You get black swellings in the armpits. In forty-eight hours you’re dead. Old ones get it first. The kids then catch it unless you make away from them mighty fast.”
“It is nothing familiar to me,” said Pander, unable to recognize cultured bubonic. “In any case, I’m not a medical expert.” He eyed Graypate. “But you seem to have avoided it.”
“Sheer luck,” opined Graypate. “Or maybe I can’t get it. There was a story going around during the war that some folk might develop immunity to it, durned if I know why. Could be that I’m immune, but I don’t count on it.”
“So you keep your distance from these children?”
“Sure.” He glanced at Speedy. “I shouldn’t really have come along with this kid. He’s got a lousy chance as it is without me increasing the odds.”
“That is thoughtful of you,” Pander put over softly. “Especially seeing that you must be lonely.”
Graypate bristled and his thought-flow became aggressive. “I ain’t grieving for company. I can look after myself, like I have done since my old man went away to curl up by himself. I’m on my own feet. So’s every other guy.”
“I believe that,” said Pander. “You must pardon me—I’m a stranger here myself. I judged you by my own feelings. Now and again I get pretty lonely.”
“How come?” demanded Graypate, staring at him. “You ain’t telling me they dumped you and left you, on your own?”
“Man!” exclaimed Graypate fervently.
Man! It was a picture resembling Speedy’s conception, a vision elusive in form but firm and human in face. The oldster was reacting to what he considered a predicament rather than a choice, and the reaction came on a wave of sympathy.
Pander struck promptly and hard. “You see how I’m fixed. The companionship of wild animals is nothing to me. I need someone intelligent enough to like my music and forget my looks, someone intelligent enough to—”
“I ain’t so sure we’re that smart,” Graypate chipped in. He let his gaze swing morbidly around the landscape. “Not when I see this graveyard and think of how it looked in granpop’s days.”
“Every flower blooms from the dust of a hundred dead ones,” answered Pander.
“What are flowers?”
It shocked the Martian. He had projected a mind-picture of a trumpet lily, crimson and shining, and Graypate’s brain had juggled it around, uncertain whether is were fish, flesh, or fowl.
“Vegetable growths, like these.” Pander plucked half a dozen blades of blue-green grass. “But more colorful, and sweet-scented.” He transmitted the brilliant vision of a mile-square field of trumpet lilies, red and glowing.
“Glory be!” said Graypate. “We’ve nothing like those.”
“Not here,” agreed Pander. “Not here.” He gestured toward the horizon. “Elsewhere may be plenty. If we got together we could be Company for each other, we could learn things from each other. We could pool our ideas, our efforts, and search for flowers far away—also for more people.”
“Folk just won’t get together in large bunches. They stick to each other in family groups until the plague breaks them up. Then they abandon the kids. The bigger the crowd, the bigger the risk of someone contaminating the lot.” He leaned on his gun, staring at the other, his thought-forms shaping themselves in dull solemnity. “When a guy gets hit, he goes away and takes it on his own. The end is a personal contract between him and his God, with no witnesses. Death’s a pretty private affair these days.”
“What, after all these years? Don’t you think that by this time the disease may have run its course and exhausted itself?”
“Nobody knows—and nobody’s gambling on it.”
“I would gamble,” said Pander.
“You ain’t like us. You mightn’t be able to catch it.”
“Or I might get it worse, and die more painfully.”
“Mebbe,” admitted Graypate, doubtfully. “Anyway, you’re looking at it from a different angle. You’ve been dumped on your ownsome. What’ve you got to lose?”
“My life,” said Pander.
Graypate rocked back on his heels, then said, “Yes, sir, that is a gamble. A guy can’t bet any heavier man that.” He rubbed his chin whiskers as before. “All right, all right, I’ll take you up on that. You come right here and live with us.” His grip tightened on his gun, his knuckles showing white. “On this understanding: The moment you feel sick you get out fast, and for keeps. If you don’t, I’ll bump you and drag you away myself, even if that makes me get it too. The kids come first, see?”
The shelters were far roomier than the cave. There were eighteen children living in them, all skinny with their prolonged diet of roots, edible herbs, and an occasional rabbit. The youngest and most sensitive of them ceased to be terrified of Pander after ten days. Within four months his slithering shape of blue ropiness had become a normal adjunct to their small, limited world.
Six of the youngsters were males older than Speedy, one of them much older but not yet adult. He beguiled them with his harp, teaching them to play, and now and again giving them ten-minute rides on the load-sled as a special treat. He made dolls for the girls and queer, cone-shaped little houses for the dolls, and fan-backed chairs of woven grass for the houses. None of these toys were truly Martian in design, and none were Terrestrial. They represented a pathetic compromise within his imagination; the Martian notion of what Terrestrial models might have looked like had there been any in existence.
But surreptitiously, without seeming to give any less attention to the younger ones, he directed his main efforts upon the six older boys and Speedy. To his mind, these were the hope of the world—and of Mars. At no time did he bother to ponder that the nontechnical brain is not without its virtues, or that there are times and circumstances when it is worth dropping the short view of what is practicable for the sake of the long view of what is remotely possible. So as best he could he concentrated upon the elder seven, educating them through the dragging months, stimulating their minds, encouraging their curiosity, and continually impressing upon them the idea that fear of disease can become a folk-separating dogma unless they conquered it within their souls.
He taught them that death is death, a natural process to be accepted philosophically and met with dignity—and there were times when he suspected that he was teaching them nothing, he was merely reminding them, for deep within their growing minds was the ancestral strain of Terrestrialism which had mulled its way to the same conclusions ten or twenty thousands of years before. Still, he was helping to remove this disease-block from the path of the stream, and was driving child-logic more rapidly toward adult outlook. In that respect he was satisfied. He could do little more.
In time, they organized group concerts, humming or making singing noises to the accompaniment of the harp, now and again improvising lines to suit Pander’s tunes, arguing out the respective merits of chosen words until by process of elimination they had a complete song. As songs grew to a repertoire and singing grew more adept, more polished, Old Graypate displayed interest, came to one performance, then another, until by custom he had established his own place as a one-man audience.
One day the eldest boy, who was named Redhead, came to Pander and grasped a tentacle-tip. “Devil, may I operate your food-machine?”
“You mean you would like me to show you how to work it?”
“No, Devil, I know how to work it.” The boy gazed sell-assuredly into the other’s great bee-eyes.
“Then how is it operated?”
“You fill its container with the tenderest blades of grass, being careful not to include roots. You are equally careful not to turn a switch before the container is full and its door completely closed. You then turn the red switch for a count of two hundred eighty, reverse the container, turn the green switch for a count of forty-seven. You then close both switches, empty the container’s warm pulp into the end molds and apply the press until the biscuits are firm and dry.”
“How have you discovered all this?”
“I have watched you make biscuits for us many times. This morning, while you were busy, I tried it myself.” He extended a hand. It held a biscuit. Taking it from him, Pander examined it. Firm, crisp, well-shaped. He tasted it. Perfect.
Redhead became the first mechanic to operate and service a Martian lifeboat’s emergency premasticator. Seven years later, long after the machine had ceased to function, he managed to repower it, weakly but effectively, with dust that gave forth alpha sparks. In another five years he had improved it, speeded it up. In twenty years he had duplicated it and had all the know-how needed to turn out premasticators on a large scale. Fander could not have equaled this performance for, as a nontechnician, he’d no better notion than the average Terrestrial of the principles upon which the machine worked, neither did he know what was meant by radiant digestion or protein enrichment. He could do little more than urge Redhead along and leave the rest to whatever inherent genius the boy possessed—which was plenty.
In similar manner, Speedy and two youths named Blacky and Bigears took the load-sled out of his charge. On rare occasions, as a great privilege, Pander had permitted them to take up the sled for one-hour trips, alone. This time they were gone from dawn to dusk. Graypate mooched around, gun under arm, another smaller one stuck in his belt, going frequently to the top of a rise and scanning the skies in all directions.
The delinquents swooped in at sunset, bringing with them a strange boy.
Pander summoned them to him. They held hands so that his touch would give him simultaneous contact with all three.
“I am a little worried. The sled has only so much power. When it is all gone there will be no more.”
They eyed each other aghast.
“Unfortunately, I have neither the knowledge nor the ability to energize the sled once its power is exhausted. I lack the wisdom of the friends who left me h*e—and that is my shame.” He paused, watching them dolefully, then went on, “All I do know is that its power does not leak away. If not used much, the reserves will remain for many years.” Another pause before he added, “And in a few years you will be men.”
Blacky said, “But, Devil, when we are men we’ll be much heavier, and the sled will use so much more power.”
“How do you know that?” Pander put it sharply.
“More weight, more power to sustain it,” opined Blacky with the air of one whose logic is incontrovertible. “It doesn’t need thinking out. It’s obvious.”
Very slowly and softly, Pander told him, “You’ll do. May the twin moons shine upon you someday, for I know you’ll do.”
“Do what, Devil?”
“Build a thousand sleds like this one, or better—and explore the whole world.”
From that time onward they confined their trips strictly to one hour, making them less frequently than of yore, spending more time poking and prying around the sled’s innards.
Graypate changed character with the slow reluctance of the aged. Leastways, as two years then three rolled past, he came gradually out of his shell, was less taciturn, more willing to mix with those swiftly growing up to his own height. Without fully realizing what he was doing he joined forces with Pander, gave the children the remnants of Earthly wisdom passed down from his father’s father. He taught the boys how to use the guns of which he had as many as eleven, some maintained mostly as a source of spares for others. He took them shell-hunting; digging deep beneath rotting foundations into stale, half-filled cellars in search of ammunition not too far corroded for use.
“Guns ain’t no use without shells, and shells don’t last forever.”
Neither do buried shells. They found not one.
Of his own wisdom Graypate stubbornly withheld but a single item until the day when Speedy and Redhead and Blacky chivvied it out of him. Then, like a father facing the hangman, he gave them the truth about babies. He made no comparative mention of bees because there were no bees, nor of flowers because there were no flowers. One cannot analogize the nonexistent. Nevertheless he managed to explain the matter more or less to their satisfaction, after which he mopped his forehead and went to Pander.
’These youngsters are getting too nosy for my comfort. They’ve been asking me how kids come along.”
“Did you tell them?”
“I sure did.” He sat down, staring at the Martian, his pale gray eyes bothered. “I don’t mind giving in to the boys when I can’t beat ’em off any longer, but I’m durned if I’m going to tell the girls.”
Pander said, “I have been asked about this many a time before. I could not tell much because I was by no means certain whether you breed precisely as we breed. But I told them how we breed.”
“The girls too?”
“Jeepers!” Graypate mopped his forehead again. “How did they take it?”
“Just as if I’d told them why the sky is blue or why water is wet.”
“Must’ve been something in the way you put it to them,” opined Graypate.
“I told them it was poetry between persons.”
Throughout the course of history, Martian, Venusian, or Terrestrial, some years are more noteworthy than others. The twelfth one after Pander’s marooning was outstanding for its series of events each of which was pitifully insignificant by cosmic standards but loomed enormously in this small community life.
To start with, on the basis of Redhead’s improvements to the premasticator, the older seven—now bearded men—contrived to repower the exhausted sled and again took to the air for the first time in forty months. Experiments showed that the Martian load-carrier was now slower, could bear less weight, but had far longer range. They used it to visit the ruins of distant cities in search of metallic junk suitable for the building of more sleds, and by early summer they had constructed another, larger than the original, clumsy to the verge of dangerousness, but still a sled.
On several occasions they failed to find metal but did find people, odd families surviving in under-surface shelters, clinging grimly to life and passed-down scraps of knowledge. Since all these new contacts were strictly human to human, with no weirdly tentacled shape to scare off the parties of the second part, and since many were finding fear of plague more to be endured than their terrible loneliness, many families returned with the explorers, settled in the shelters, accepted Pander, added their surviving skills to the community’s riches.
Thus local population grew to seventy adults and four hundred children. They compounded with their plague-fear by spreading through the shelters, digging through half-wrecked and formerly unused expanses, and moving apart to form twenty or thirty lesser communities each one of which could be isolated should death reappear.
Growing morale born of added strength and confidence in numbers soon resulted in four more sleds, still clumsy but slightly less dangerous to manage. There also appeared the first rock house above ground, standing four-square and solidly under the gray skies, a defiant witness that mankind still considered itself a cut above the rats and rabbits. The community presented the house to Blacky and Sweetvoice, who had announced their desire to associate. An adult who claimed to know the conventional routine spoke solemn words over the happy couple before many witnesses, while Pander attended the groom as best Martian.
Toward summer’s end Speedy returned from a solo sled-trip of many days, brought with him one old man, one boy and four girls, all of strange, outlandish countenance. They were yellow in complexion, had black hair, black, almond-shaped eyes, and spoke a language that none could understand. Until these newcomers had picked up the local speech, Pander had to act as interpreter, for his mind-pictures and theirs were independent of vocal sounds. The four girls were quiet, modest, and very beautiful. Within a month Speedy had married one of them whose name was a gentle clucking sound which meant Precious Jewel Ling.
After this wedding, Pander sought Graypate, placed a tentacle-tip in his right hand. “There were differences between the man and the girl, distinctive features wider apart than any we know upon Mars. Are these some of the differences which caused your war?”
“I dunno. I’ve never seen one of these yellow folk before. They must live mighty far off.” He rubbed his chin to help his thoughts along. “I only know what my old man told me and his old man told him. There were too many folk of too many different sorts.”
“They can’t be all that different if they can fall in love.”
“Mebbe not,” agreed Graypate.
“Supposing most of the people still in this world could assemble here, breed together, and have less different children; the children bred others still less different. Wouldn’t they eventually become all much the same—just Earth-people?”
“All speaking the same language, sharing the same culture? If they spread out slowly from a central source, always in contact by sled, continually sharing the same knowledge, same progress, would there be any room for new differences to arise?”
“I dunno,” said Graypate evasively. “I’m not so young as I used to be, and I can’t dream as far ahead as I used to do.”
“It doesn’t matter so long as the young ones can dream it.” Pander mused a moment. “If you’re beginning to think yourself a back number, you’re in good company. Things are getting somewhat out of hand as far as I’m concerned. The onlooker sees the most of the game, and perhaps that’s why I’m more sensitive than you to a certain peculiar feeling.”
“To what feeling?” inquired Graypate, eyeing him.
“That Terra is on the move once more. There are now many people where there were few. A house is up and more are to follow. They talk of six more. After the six they will talk of sixty, then six hundred, then six thousand. Some are planning to haul up sunken conduits and use them to pipe water from the northward lake. Sleds are being built. Premasticators will soon be built, and force-screens likewise. Children are being taught. Less and less is being heard of your plague, and so far no more have died of it. I feel a dynamic surge of energy and ambition and genius which may grow with appalling rapidity until it becomes a mighty flood. I feel that I, too, am a back number.”
“Bunk!” said Graypate. He spat on the ground. “If you dream often enough, you’re bound to have a bad one once in a while.”
“Perhaps it is because so many of my tasks have been taken over and done better than I was doing them. I have failed to seek new tasks. Were I a technician I’d have discovered a dozen by now. Reckon this is as good a time as any to turn to a job with which you can help me.”
“What is that?”
“A long, long time ago I made a poem. It was for the beautiful thing that first impelled me to stay here. I do. not know exactly what its maker had in mind, nor whether my eyes see it as he wished it to be seen, but I have made a poem to express what I feel when I look upon his work.”
“Humph!” said Graypate, not very interested.
“There is an outcrop of solid rock beneath its base which I can shave smooth and use as a plinth on which to inscribe my words. I would like to put them down twice—in the script of Mars and the script of Earth.” Pander hesitated a moment, then went on. “Perhaps this is presumptuous of me, but it is many years since I wrote for all to read—and my chance may never come again.”
Graypate said, “I get the idea. You want me to put down your notions in our writing so you can copy it.”
“Give me your stylus and pad.” Taking them, Graypate squatted on a rock, lowering himself stiffly, for he was feeling the weight of his years. Resting the pad on his knees, he held the writing instrument in his right hand while his left continued to grasp a tentacle-tip. “Go ahead.”
He started drawing thick, laborious marks as Pander’s mind-pictures came through, enlarging the letters and keeping them well separated. When he had finished he handed the pad over.
“Asymmetrical,” decided Pander, staring at the queer letters and wishing for the first time that he had taken up the study of Earth-writing. “Cannot you make this part balance with that, and this with this?”
“It’s what you said.”
“It is your own translation of what I said. I would like it better balanced. Do you mind if we try again?”
They tried again. They made fourteen attempts before Pander was satisfied with the perfunctory appearance of letters and words he could not understand.
Taking the paper, he found his ray-gun, went to the base-rock of the beautiful thing and sheared the whole front to a flat, even surface. Adjusting his beam to cut a V-shaped channel one inch deep, he inscribed his poem on the rock in long, unpunctuated lines of neat Martian curlicues. With less confidence and much greater care, he repeated the verse in Earth’s awkward, angular hieroglyphics. The task took him quite a time, and there were fifty people watching him when he finished. They said nothing. In utter silence they looked at the poem and at the beautiful thing, and were still standing there brooding solemnly when he went away.
One by one the rest of the community visited the site next day, going and coming with the air of pilgrims attending an ancient shrine. All stood there a long time, returned without comment. Nobody praised Fander’s work, nobody damned it, nobody reproached him for alienizing something wholly Earth’s. The only effect—too subtle to be noteworthy—was a greater and still growing grimness and determination that boosted the already swelling Earth-dynamic.
In that respect, Pander wrought better than he knew.
A plague-scare came in the fourteenth year. Two sleds had brought back families from afar, and within a week of their arrival the children sickened, became spotted.
Metal gongs sounded the alarm, all work ceased, the affected section was cut off and guarded, the majority prepared to flee. It was a threatening reversal of all the things for which many had toiled so long; a destructive scattering of the tender roots of new civilization.
Pander found Graypate, Speedy, and Blacky, armed to the teeth, facing a drawn-faced and restless crowd.
“There’s most of a hundred folk in that isolated part,” Graypate was telling them. “They ain’t all got it. Maybe they won’t get it. If they don’t it ain’t so likely you’ll go down either. We ought to wait and see. Stick around a bit.”
“Listen who’s talking,” invited a voice in the crowd. “If you weren’t immune you’d have been planted thirty-forty years ago.”
“Same goes for near everybody,” snapped Graypate. He glared around, his gun under one arm, his pale blue eyes bellicose. “I ain’t much use at speechifying, so I’m just saying flatly that nobody goes before we know whether this really is the plague.” He hefted his weapon in one hand, held it forward. “Anyone fancy himself at beating a bullet?”
The heckler in the audience muscled his way to the front. He was a swarthy man of muscular build, and his dark eyes looked belligerently into Graypate’s. “While there’s life there’s hope. If we beat it, we live to come back, when it’s safe to come back, if ever—and you know it. So I’m calling your bluff, see?” Squaring his shoulders, he began to walk off.
Graypate’s gun already was halfway up when he felt the touch of Pander’s tentacle on his arm. He lowered the weapon, called after the escapee.
“I’m going into that cut-off section and the Devil is going with me. We’re running into things, not away from them. I never did like running away.” Several of the audience fidgeted, murmuring approval. He went on, “We’ll see for ourselves just what’s wrong. We mightn’t be able to put it right, but we’ll find out what’s the matter.”
The walker paused, turned, eyed him, eyed Fander, and said, “You can’t do that.”
“You’ll get it yourself—and a heck of a lot of use you’ll be dead and stinking.”
“What, and me immune?” cracked Graypate grinning.
“The Devil will get it,” hedged the other.
Graypate was about to retort, “What do you care?” but altered it slightly in response to Pander’s contacting thoughts. He said, more softly, “Do you care?”
It caught the other off-balance. He fumbled embarrassedly within his own mind, avoided looking at the Martian, said lamely, “I don’t see reason for any guy to take risks.”
“He’s taking them, because he cares,” Graypate gave back. “And I’m taking them because I’m too old and useless to give a darn.”
With that, he stepped down, marched stubbornly toward the isolated section, Fander slithering by his side, tentacle in hand. The one who wished to flee stayed put, staring after them. The crowd shuffled uneasily, seemed in two minds whether to accept the situation and stick around, or whether to rush Graypate and Fander and drag them away. Speedy and Blacky made to follow the pair but were ordered off.
No adult sickened; nobody died. Children in the affected sector went one after another through the same routine of feverishness, high temperature, and spots, until the epidemic of measles had died out; Not until a month after the last case had been cured by something within its own constitution did Graypate and Fander emerge.
The innocuous course and eventual disappearance of this suspected plague gave the pendulum of confidence a push, swinging it farther. Morale boosted itself almost to the verge of arrogance. More sleds appeared, more mechanics serviced them, more pilots rode them. More people flowed in; more oddments of past knowledge came with them.
Humanity was off to a flying start with the salvaged seeds of past wisdom and the urge to do. The tormented ones of Earth were not primitive savages, but surviving organisms of a greatness nine-tenths destroyed but still remembered, each contributing his mite of know-how to restore at least some of those things which had been boiled away in atomic fires.
When, in the twentieth year, Redhead duplicated the premasticator, there were eight thousand stone houses stand-big around the hill. A community hall seventy times the size of a house, with a great green dome of copper, reared itself upon the eastward fringe. A dam held the lake to the north. A hospital was going up in the west. The nuances and energies and talents of fifty races had built this town and were still building it. Among them were ten Polynesians and four Icelanders and one lean, dusky child who was the last of the Seminoles.
Farms spread wide. One thousand heads of Indian corn rescued from a sheltered valley in the Andes had grown to ten thousand acres. Water buffaloes and goats had been brought from afar to serve in lieu of the horses and sheep that would never be seen again—and no man knew why one species survived while another did not. The horses had died; the water buffalos lived. The canines hunted in ferocious packs; the felines had departed from existence. The small herbs, some tubers, and a few seedy things could be rescued and cultivated for hungry bellies; but there were no flowers for the hungry mind. Humanity carried on, making do with what was available. No more than that could be done.
Pander was a back-number. He had nothing left for which to live but his songs and the affection of the others. In everything but his harp and his songs the Terrans were way ahead of him. He could do no more than give of his own affection in return for theirs and wait with the patience of one whose work is done.
At the end of that year they buried Graypate. He died in his sleep, passing with the undramatic casualness of one who ain’t much use at speechifying. They put him to rest on a knoll behind the community hall, and Pander played his mourning song, and Precious Jewel, who was Speedy’s wife, planted the grave with sweet herbs.
In the spring of the following year Pander summoned Speedy and Blacky and Redhead. He was coiled on a couch, blue and shivering. They held hands so that his touch would speak to them simultaneously.
“I am about to undergo my amafa.”
He had great difficulty in putting it over in understandable thought-forms, for this was something beyond their Earthly experience.
“It is an unavoidable change of age during which my kind must sleep undisturbed.” They reacted as if the casual reference to his kind was a strange and startling revelation, a new aspect previously unthought-of. He continued, “I must be left alone until this hibernation has run its natural course.”
“For how long, Devil?” asked Speedy, with anxiety.
“It may stretch from four of your months to a full year, or—”
“Or what?” Speedy did not wait for a reassuring reply. His agile mind was swift to sense the spice of danger lying far back in the Martian’s thoughts. “Or it may never end?”
“It may never,” admitted Pander, reluctantly. He shivered again, drew his tentacles around himself. The brilliance of his blueness was fading visibly. “The possibility is small, but it is there.”
Speedy’s eyes widened and his breath was taken in a short gasp. His mind was striving to readjust itself and accept the appalling idea that Pander might not be a fixture, permanent, established for all time. Blacky and Redhead were equally aghast.
“We Martians do not last forever,” Pander pointed out, gently. “All are mortal, here and there. He who survives his amafa has many happy years to follow, but some do not survive. It is a trial that must be faced as everything from beginning to end must be faced.”
“Our numbers are not large,” Pander went on. “We breed slowly and some of us die halfway through the normal span. By cosmic standards we are a weak and foolish people much in need of the support of the clever and the strong. You are clever and strong. Whenever my people visit you again, or any other still stranger people come, always remember that you are clever and strong.”
“We are strong,” echoed Speedy, dreamily. His gaze swung around to take in the thousands of roofs, the copper dome, the thing of beauty on the hill. “We are strong.”
A prolonged shudder went through the ropy, bee-eyed creature on the couch.
“I do not wish to be left here, an idle sleeper in the midst of life, posing like a bad example to the young. I would rather rest within the little cave where first we made friends and grew to know and understand each other. Wall it up and fix a door for me. Forbid anyone to touch me or let the light of day fall upon me until such time as I emerge of my own accord.” Pander stirred sluggishly, his limbs uncoiling with noticeable lack of sinuousness. “I regret I must ask you to carry me there. Please forgive me; I have left it a little late and cannot… cannot… make it by myself.”
Their faces were pictures of alarm, their minds bells of sorrow. Running for poles, they made a stretcher, edged him onto it, bore him to the cave. A long procession was following by the time they reached it. As they settled him comfortably and began to wall up the entrance, the crowd watched in the same solemn silence with which they had looked upon his verse.
He was already a tightly rolled ball of dull blueness, with filmed eyes, when they fitted the door and closed it, leaving him to darkness and slumber. Next day a tiny, brown-skinned man with eight children, all hugging dolls, came to the door. While the youngsters stared huge-eyed at the door, he fixed upon it a two-word name in metal letters, taking great pains over his self-imposed task and making a neat job of it.
The Martian vessel came from the stratosphere with the slow, stately fall of a grounding balloon. Behind the transparent band its bluish, nightmarish crew were assembled and looking with great, multifaceted eyes at the upper surface of the clouds. The scene resembled a pink-tinged snowfield beneath which the planet still remained concealed.
Captain Rdina could feel this as a tense, exciting moment even though his vessel had not the honor to be the first with such an approach. One Captain Skhiva, now long retired, had done it many years before. Nevertheless, this second venture retained its own exploratory thrill.
Someone stationed a third of the way around the vessel’s belly came writhing at top pace toward him as their drop brought them near to the pinkish clouds. The oncomer’s signaling tentacle was jiggling at a seldom-used rate.
“Captain, we have just seen an object swoop across the horizon.”
“What sort of an object?”
“It looked like a gigantic load-sled.”
“It couldn’t have been.”
“No, Captain, of course not—but that is exactly what it appeared to be.”
“Where is it now?” demanded Rdina, gazing toward the side from which the other had come.
“It dived into the mists below.”
“You must have been mistaken. Long-standing anticipation can encourage the strangest delusions.” He stopped a moment as the observation band became shrouded in the vapor of a cloud. Musingly, he watched the gray wall of fog slide upward as his vessel continued its descent. “That old report says definitely that there is nothing but desolation and wild animals. There is no intelligent life except some fool of a minor poet whom Skhiva left behind, and twelve to one he’s dead by now. The animals may have eaten him.”
“Eaten him? Eaten meat?” exclaimed the other, thoroughly revolted.
“Anything is possible,” assured Rdina, pleased with the extreme to which his imagination could be stretched. “Except a load-sled. That was plain silly.”
At which point he had no choice but to let the subject drop for the simple and compelling reason that the ship came out of the base of the cloud, and the sled in question was floating alongside. It could be seen in complete detail, and even their own instruments were responding to the powerful output of its numerous flotation-grids.
The twenty Martians aboard the sphere sat staring bee-eyed at this enormous thing which was half the size of their own vessel, and the forty humans on the sled stared back with equal intentness. Ship and sled continued to descend side by side, while both crews studied each other with dumb fascination which persisted until simultaneously they touched ground.
It was not until he felt the slight jolt of landing that Captain Rdina recovered sufficiently to look elsewhere. He saw the houses, the green-domed building, the thing of beauty poised upon its hill, the many hundreds of Earth-people streaming out of their town and toward his vessel.
None of these queer, two-legged life forms, he noted, betrayed slightest sign of revulsion or fear. They galloped to the tryst with a bumptious self-confidence which would still be evident any place title other side of the cosmos.
It shook him a little, and he kept saying to himself, again and again, “They’re not scared—why should you be? They’re not scared—why should you be?”
He went out personally to meet the first of them, suppressing his own apprehensions and ignoring the fact that many of them bore weapons. The leading Earthmen, a big-built, spade-bearded two-legger, grasped his tentacle as to the manner born.
There came a picture of swiftly moving limbs. “My name is Speedy.”
The ship emptied itself within ten minutes. No Martian would stay inside who was free to smell new air. Their first visit, in a slithering bunch, was to the thing of beauty. Rdina stood quietly looking at it, his crew clustered in a half-circle around him, the Earth-folk a silent audience behind.
It was a great rock statue of a female of Earth. She was broad-shouldered, full-bosomed, wide-hipped, and wore voluminous skirts that came right down to her heavy-soled shoes. Her back was a little bent, her head a little bowed, and her face was hidden in her hands, deep in her toilworn hands. Rdina tried in vain to gain some glimpse of the tired features behind those hiding hands. He looked at her a long while before his eyes lowered to read the script beneath, ignoring the Earth-lettering, running easily over the flowing Martian curlicues:
Weep, my country, for your sons asleep,
The ashes of your homes, your tottering towers.
Weep, my country, O, my country, weep!
For birds that cannot sing, for vanished flowers,
The end of everything,
The silenced hours.
Weep! my country.
There was no signature. Rdina mulled it through many minutes while the others remained passive. Then he turned to Speedy, pointed to the Martian script.
“Who wrote this?”
“One of your people. He is dead.”
“Ah!” said Rdina. “That songbird of Skhiva’s. I have forgotten his name. I doubt whether many remember it. He was only a very small poet. How did he die?”
“He ordered us to enclose him for some long and urgent sleep he must have, and—”
“The amafa,” put in Rdina, comprehendingly. “And then?”
“We did as he asked. He warned us that he might never come out.” Speedy gazed at the sky, unconscious that Rdina was picking up his sorrowful thoughts. “He has been there nearly two years and has not emerged.” The eyes came down to Rdina. “I don’t know whether you can understand me, but he was one of us.”
“I think I understand.” Rdina was thoughtful. He asked, “How long is this period you call nearly two years?”
They managed to work it out between them, translating it from Terran to Martian time-terms.
“It is long,” pronounced Rdina. “Much longer than the usual amafa, but not unique. Occasionally, for no known reason, someone takes even longer. Besides, Earth is Earth and Mars is Mars.” He became swift, energetic as he called to one of his crew. “Physician Traith, we have a prolonged-amafa case. Get your oils and essences and come with me.” When the other had returned, he said to Speedy, “Take us to where he sleeps.”
Reaching the door to the walled-up cave, Rdina paused to look at the names fixed upon it in neat but incomprehensible letters. They read: DEAR DEVIL.
“What do those mean?” asked Physician Traith, pointing.
“Do not disturb,” guessed Rdina carelessly. Pushing open the door, he let the other enter first, closed it behind him to keep all others outside.
They reappeared an hour later. The total population of the city had congregated outside the cave to see the Martians. Rdina wondered why they had not permitted his crew to satisfy their natural curiosity, since it was unlikely that they would be more interested in other things—such as the fate of one small poet. Ten thousand eyes were upon them as they came into the sunlight and fastened the cave’s door. Rdina made contact with Speedy, gave him the news.
Stretching himself in the light as if reaching toward the sun, Speedy shouted in a voice of tremendous gladness which all could hear.
“He will be out again within twenty days.”
At that, a mild form of madness seemed to overcome the two-leggers. They made pleasure-grimaces, piercing mouth-noises, and some went so far as to beat each other.
Twenty Martians felt like joining Fander that same night. The Martian constitution is peculiarly susceptible to emotion.