Bradley seemed to have escaped regeneration. Now he had only death to worry about.
Ten minutes before, he had been tumbling through the air head over heels, helpless and despairing. And before that--
He remembered how his heart had been in his mouth as he had crept down the corridor of the speeding ship. He could hear Malevski’s voice coming faintly through one of the walls, and had been tempted to run back, fearful of being shot down on the spot if he were caught. He had fought back the temptation and kept on. No one had seen him as he crept into the lifeboat.
“This is your one chance,” he told himself. “You have to take it. If they get you back to port, you’re finished.”
Luck had been with him. They were broadcasting the results of the Mars-Earth matches at the time, and most of the crew were grouped around the visors. He had picked the moment when news came of a sensational upset, and for a minute or two after the lifeboat blasted off, no one realized what had happened. When the truth did penetrate, they had a hard time swinging the ship around, and by then the lifeboat was out of radar range. He was free.
He had exulted wildly for a moment, until it struck him that freedom in space might be a doubtful gift. He would have to get to some civilized port, convince the port authorities that he had been shipwrecked and somehow separated from the other crew members, and then lose himself quickly in the crowd of people that he hoped would fill the place. There would be risks, but he would take them. It would be better than running out of air and food in space.
It had been the best possible plan, and it had gone wrong, all wrong. He had been caught, before he knew it, in the gravity of a planet he had overlooked. The lifeboat had torn apart under the combined stresses of its forward momentum and its side rockets blasting full force, and he had been hurled free in his space suit, falling slowly at first, then faster, faster, faster--
The automatic parachutes had suddenly sprung into operation when he reached a critical speed, and he had slowed down and stopped tumbling. He fell more gently, feet first, and when he landed it was with a shock that jarred but did no real damage.
Slowly he picked himself up and fumbled at the air valve. Something in the intake tubes had jammed under the shock of landing, and the air was no longer circulating properly. Filled with the moisture of his own breath, it felt hot and clammy, and clouded the viewplates.
If he had kept all his wits about him he would have tried to remember, before he took a chance, whether the planet had an oxygen atmosphere, and whether the oxygen was of sufficient concentration to support human life. Not that he had any real choice, but it would have been good to know. As it was, he turned the air valve automatically, and listened nervously as the stale air hissed out and the fresh air hissed in.
He took a deep breath. It didn’t kill him. Instead, it sent his blood racing around with new energy. Slowly the moisture evaporated from his viewplates. Slowly he began to see.
He perceived that he was not alone. A group of people stood in front of him, respectful, their own eyes full of fear and wonder. Some one uttered a hoarse cry and pointed at his helmet. The unclouding of the viewplates must have stricken them with awe.
The air was wonderful to breathe. He would have liked to remove his helmet and fill his lungs with it unhampered, expose his face to its soft caress, expand his chest with the constriction of the suit. But these people--
They must have seen him tumble down from the sky and land unhurt. They carried food and flowers, and now they were kneeling down to him as to a--Suddenly he realized. To them he was a god.
The thought of it made him weak. To Malevski and the ship’s crew he was a criminal, a cheap chiseler and pickpocket, almost a murderer, escaping credit for that crime only by grace of his own good luck and his victim’s thick skull. They had felt such contempt for him that they hadn’t even bothered to guard him too carefully. They had thought him a complete coward, without the courage to risk an escape, without the intelligence to find the opportunities that might be offered to him.
They hadn’t realized how terrified he was of the thing with which they threatened him. Regeneration, the giving up of his old identity? Not for him. They hadn’t realized that he preferred the risks of a dangerous escape to the certainty of that.
And here he was a god.
He lifted his hand without thinking, to wipe away the perspiration that covered his forehead. But before the hand touched his helmet he realized what he was doing, and let the hand drop again.
To the people watching him the gesture must have seemed one of double significance. It was at once a sign of acceptance of their food and flowers, and their offer of good-will, and at the same time an order to withdraw. They bowed, and moved backwards away from him. Behind him they left their gifts.
They seemed human, human enough for the features on the men’s faces to impress him as strong and resourceful, for him to recognize that the women were attractive. And if they were human, the food must be fit for human beings. Whether it was or wasn’t, however, again he had no choice.
He waited until they were out of sight, and then, stiffly, he removed his helmet and ate. The food tasted good. And with his helmet off, with the wind on his face, and the woods around him whispering in his ears, it was a meal fit for the being they thought him to be.
He was a god. Possibly it was the space suit which made him one, especially the goggle-eyed helmet. He could take no chance of becoming an ordinary mortal, and that would mean that he would have to wear the space suit continually. Or at least the helmet. That, he decided, was what he would do. That would leave his body reasonably free, and at the same time impress them with the fact that he was different from them.
By manipulating the air valve he would be able to make the viewplates cloud and uncloud at will, thus giving dramatic expression to his feelings. It would be a pleasant game to play until he had learned something of their language. It would be safer than trying to make things clear to them with speech and gestures that they could not understand anyway.
He wondered how long it would be before Malevski would find the shattered lifeboat drifting in space, and then trace its course and decide where he had landed. That would be the end of his divinity. Meanwhile, until then--
Until then he was a god. Unregenerated. Permanently unregenerated. Holding his helmet, he threw back his head and laughed loud and long, and wondered what his mother would have thought.
For awhile he was being left alone. They were afraid of him, of course, fearful of intruding with their merely mortal affairs upon the meditations of so divine a being. Later, however, curiosity and perhaps a desire to show him off to newcomers might draw them back. In the interval, it would be well to find out what sort of place this was in which he had landed.
He looked around him. There were trees, with sharp green branches, sharp green twigs, sharp red leaves. He shuddered as he thought of what would have happened to him if he had fallen on the point of a branch. The trees seemed rigid and unbending in the wind that caressed his face. There were no birds that he could see. Small black objects bounded from one branch to another as if engaged in complicated games of tag. He wondered if the games were as serious as the one he had been playing with Malevski, with himself as It.
There were no ground animals in sight. If any showed up later, they couldn’t be too dangerous, not with the natives living here in such apparent peace and contentment. There probably wouldn’t be anything that his pocket gun, which he had taken the precaution to remove from the lifeboat before that shattered, wouldn’t be able to handle.
Near him was a strange spring, or little river, or whatever you might call it. It broke from the ground, ran along the hard rocky surface for a dozen feet, and then plunged underground again. There were other springs of a similar nature scattered here and there, and now he realized that their combined murmuring was the noise he had mistaken, on first removing his helmet, for the rustle of the wind in the woods.
He would have enough to drink. The natives would bring him food. What else could any reasonable man want?
It wasn’t the kind of life he had dreamed of. No Martian whiskey, no drugs, no night spots, no bigtime gamblers slapping him on the back and calling him “pal,” no brassy blondes giving him the eye. Still, it was better than the life he had actually lived, much better. It would do, it would have to do.
From what he had seen of the natives, he liked them--and feared them. For all their mistaken faith in him, they seemed to be no fools. How many times before had men from some supposedly superior civilization dropped in upon the people of a new world and made that first impression of divinity, only to have the original attitude of worship by the natives give way to disillusion and contempt? Who was that fellow they told about in the history books he had read as a kid? Cortez, way back on Earth, when that planet itself had offered unexplored territory. And later on it had happened on one of the moons of Jupiter, and on several planets outside the System. The explorers had been gods, until they had been found out. Then they had been savage murderers, plunderers, devils.
It would be too bad if he were found out. He was one against them all, he would never be able to fight off so many enemies. More than that, he was a stranger here, he needed friends. No, he mustn’t be found out.
“Better put on your helmet, dope,” he told himself savagely. “They’ll be coming back soon, and if they find you without it--” He put on his helmet, still muttering to himself. It wouldn’t make any difference if he were overheard. They didn’t know Earth language and would take his words for oracular utterances. He could talk to himself all he wanted, and from the looks of things, there would be no one to understand him. He hoped he didn’t grow crazy and eccentric, like those hermits who had been lost alone in space for too many years.
The helmet was the first nuisance. There would be others too. He couldn’t even talk in what had become his natural manner, with a whine in every word, a whine that came from being treated with contempt by police and fellow-criminals alike. A god had to speak with slow gravity, with dignity. A god had to walk like a god. A god had endless responsibilities here, it seemed.
He thought again of his mother. Ever since he could remember, it had been, “Georgie, wipe your nose!” and, “Georgie, keep your fingers out of the cake!” and Georgie do this and don’t do that. A fine way to speak to a god. Even after he had grown up, his mother had continued to treat him like a baby. She had never got over examining his face and his ears and his fingernails to make sure that he had cleaned them properly. He couldn’t so much as comb his hair to suit her; all through his abortive attempt at college, and later at a job, she had done it for him.
But she had been a lioness in his defense later on, when he had given way to that first irresistible impulse to dip his fingers in the till and get away with what he thought would be unnoticed petty cash. It had been her fault that the thing had happened, of course. She could have given him a decent amount of spending money, instead of doling it out to him from his own wages as if she were giving money for candy to a schoolboy. She could have treated him more like the man he was supposed to be.
Still, he couldn’t complain. She had stuck to him all the way through, whatever the charges against him. When that lug of a traveling salesman had accused her Georgie of picking his pockets, and that female refugee from a TV studio had charged poor harmless Georgie with slugging her, it was his mother who had stood up in court and denounced them, and solemnly told judge and jury what a sweet, kind, helplessly innocent lamb her Georgie was. It wasn’t her fault if no one had quite believed her.
Now he was on his own, without any possibility of help from her. And in what the ads called a “responsible position” that she had never so much as dreamed he could fill.
Unfortunately, now that he had reached so exalted a level, there seemed to be few possibilities of promotion. There appeared only the chance, on the one hand, that the natives would find him out and slaughter him, and on the other that Malevski would track him down and bring him back to Earth for the punishment he dreaded.
It was a good thing he had put on his helmet. Not far away, a group of the natives was approaching, laden with more food and flowers. It was larger than the previous group. Evidently, as he had anticipated, they were showing him off to newcomers.
He came to a stately halt and waited for them to approach. He could see the surprise on their faces as they noted his change of costume, and he watched nervously as they stopped to whisper among themselves. It would be too bad for him if they didn’t like it.
But they didn’t seem to mind. One of them, a very impressive old man with green hair flecked with red, stepped in front of the others and made a speech, a melodious speech full of liquid sounds that were neither quite vowels nor consonants. He didn’t have the slightest idea of what the individual words meant. But the significance of the speech as a whole was clear enough. As it came to an end, they presented him with more food and flowers.
Bradley cleared his throat. And then, with as deep and impressive a voice as he could manage, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to accept your nomination. I promise you that if elected I shall keep none of my promises.”
It was his first speech to them, and he enjoyed making it so much that every time he saw them during the next few days--they settled down to coming twice a day, morning and night--he made it again, with variations, listing the wonderful things he would do for them if elected to the office.
After awhile, as he began to enjoy the ceremony for its own sake, he didn’t mind at all putting the helmet on for two short periods every day. Having so little contact with them, he could learn their language only very slowly. He could distinguish the word for flowers from that for food, although he himself could pronounce neither. He knew the names of a few plants, a few parts of the body. And he learned a few names of people. The red-green haired old man was, as close as he could make the sounds, Yanyoo. He took the trouble to notice that the prettiest girl was Aoooya.
At first everything had been exceedingly peaceful. But about a week after his arrival--he couldn’t be sure exactly how many days had passed, because he hadn’t kept count--he learned of some of the dangers they faced.
It was while they were holding the morning ceremony that the thing came out of the forest. At first he thought that a tree had moved. It was green, with reddish blotches like clusters of needle leaves, and it seemed to ooze forward toward them from among the trees. Aoooya noticed it first, and pointed and screamed. It was the size of a tiger, thought Bradley, and might be even more dangerous. He had difficulty keeping his eyes on the rapidly moving creature through the goggles of his helmet. He was aware of gleaming eyes, of two rows of dull green teeth, and of muscles that rippled under the green fur.
Several of the men had little blowpipes, through which they released a shower of darts. But the darts bounced off the fur, and the thing came on. Bradley fumbled for his gun, and almost dropped it in his excitement. When he finally brought it up into aiming position, his hand was trembling, and his finger could hardly catch the trigger.
The thing leaped into the air at the old man, Yanyoo, just as the gun went off. The body vaporized first, leaving for a fraction of a second the fierce head and the powerful legs apparently supporting themselves in the air. Then part of the head went, and the rest fell to the ground. But sheer momentum carried the green smoky vapor on, so that it surrounded first the old man, then several of the girls, and after them, Bradley himself. They were all yelling, all but Bradley, who put away his gun and muttered to himself in relief, and then the wind began to dissipate the vapor, and on the ground there was left only part of a head and six torn legs.
They were bowing to him and raising their voices high in thanks. It was easy, thought Bradley. Really, it was a cinch to be a god. The beasts that were such great dangers to them were mere trifles to him. To him, with a gun loaded with a thousand thermal charges each of which was capable of blasting armor plate. The thing wouldn’t even have come close if he himself hadn’t been such a timid, cowardly fool. Put Malevski in his place, and the detective would have got the creature as it came out of the trees. He wasn’t Malevski.
It was a good thing for him that they couldn’t know that. Now his position was completely secure. Now he could relax and enjoy his divine life.
He didn’t realize that a much greater danger was yet to come. He found that out after the evening ceremony.
The group that came to see him this time was bigger than ever. Evidently, to honor him they had dropped all other work. Yanyoo seemed to have constituted himself Bradley’s priest. He made a tremendously long and rhapsodic-sounding speech, but at the end there was no donation of the usual food and flowers. Instead, Yanyoo backed away, all the others doing the same, and looking at Bradley as if expecting him to follow them.
He followed. In this manner, with his worshippers walking respectfully backwards, they arrived at what seemed to Bradley to be an ordinary small hut. Outside the hut was what he took for a curiously shaped log of wood. The inside of the hut was in shadow, but as his eyes became accustomed to the dimness, he saw something in one corner. It was a weird-looking head, also of wood.