The sun glared, fiercely detached. The thin air suddenly seemed friendless, empty, a vast lake of poison and glassy water. All at once, the stretching plains of sand began to waver with a terrible insubstantiality before Madeleine’s eyes.
Even the Ruins of Taovahr were false. And for Madeleine, even if they were not false, there was no sign of the outer garments of dream with which, on a thousand lonely nights back home on the Earth, she had clothed those dusty scattered skeletons of crumbled stone.
Don, one of the brightest and most handsomely uniformed of all the bright young guide-hosts at Martian Haven, droned on to the finish of his machine-tooled lecture about the Ruins of Taovahr. He, of course, was the biggest chunk of falseness on Mars.
“And so folks, this is all that’s left of a once great civilization. A few columns and worn pieces of stone. And we can never know now how they lived and loved and died--for no trace whatsoever of an ancient people remain. The dim, dark seas of time have swept their age-old secrets into the backwash of eternity--”
“Oh God,” whispered Madeleine.
“Shhhh!” said her father. And her mother blinked at her with a resigned tolerance.
“But he’s a living cliche,” she said, trying to control the faintness, the dizziness, the dullness coming back as the last illusion drained away. “Even if the ruins were real, he’d make them seem trite.”
“Madeleine!” her mother gasped, but in a subdued way.
“But there ought to be something special about a Martian ruin, Mother.”
Don had heard her. His smile was uneasy, though politely tolerant, as all good hosts were to rich tourists. “You’re hard to please, Miss Ericson. Maybe too hard.” His lingering glance stopped just short of crudity. But the look made it clear that if she wanted the romance all women were assumed to expect at Martian Haven, he could provide it, as he did everything else--discreetly, efficiently and most memorably.
Mrs. Ericson giggled. She had long since abandoned any hope of Madeleine being, even by stretching the norm, a well-adjusted girl. But much faith had been placed in a Martian vacation, and hope that it would provide Madeleine with some sort of emotional preoccupation, even an affair, if need be--something, anything, that would at least make her seem faintly capable of a normal relationship with a male. Even this fellow Don. For Madeleine was past thirty-five--how far past no one discussed any more--and was becoming more tightly withdrawn every day.
Don shouted. “All right, folks! Now we wend our way back to Martian Haven, over a trail that’s the oldest in the Solar System, a trail that was once a mighty highway stretching from the inland city to the great ocean that once rolled where now there is only thousands of miles of wind-blown sands!”
The long line of exclaiming and sickeningly gullible tourists, either too young and wide-eyed to know better, or too old and desperate to admit the phoniness, ooohhhed and ahhhhed, and the rickshaws and camels, plus a few hardy adventurers on foot, turned with him as Don twisted his own beast toward Martian Haven.
Even the Ruins, she thought--they were like imported props lying in the sand, like old abandoned bits of a set for a TV production.
“Madeleine,” her father said, still trying to be a big brother after years of failure. “I really don’t understand this at all. Coming all the way to Mars, and you act like--well--like we’d just stepped around the corner in Chicago to some ridiculous carnival!”
“I am cursed,” she whispered. “I’m tortured.”
“What?” her mother said, and stared, with that child-like curiosity with which she had greeted Madeleine’s advent into the world, and which she had never lost.
“Tortured by the insight that both enables and compels me to see through the sham and pretense.”
Her father grunted and blinked twice. He almost always blinked twice when she began sounding pedantic like that. He suspected that she did it deliberately to show off his ignorance.
“Funny,” she said, mostly to herself, “that I allowed myself to be sold this--Mars--the biggest piece of ersatz junk of all!”
“Madeleine!” her mother exclaimed.
“The advertisers got here first,” Madeleine said, glancing at Don. “The hucksters.” She stopped talking. Mars offered none of itself, but the others didn’t understand. Mars was only what the hucksters wanted it to be.
She wondered how she could hang on to the end of the season--even though it was only three more days. They had committed themselves to a rigidly-planned schedule, a clockwork program that had them and the other “vacationing” tourists jumping and squeaking like automatons: Exotic Martian sports. Martian tennis played on a hundred-yard court with the players hopping through the rarified air and lower gravity with an almost obscene abandon. Swimming in a strangely buoyant water, called, of course, Martian water. Sandsled racing. Air-hopping with the de-gravity balloons. Spectator sports, including gladiators who leaped into the phony canals and fought to the death against the hideous-looking Martian rat-fish. There were many other “activities”, in none of which Madeleine had been able to interest herself.
This last three days promised something called the “Martian Love Ritual under the Double Moons.” And a climactic treasure hunt among the subterranean Martian labyrinths. They too, Madeleine was sure, were artificial.
Mrs. Ericson adjusted her polaroid glasses and waved her rickshaw boy into his harness, where his thighs tensed for the long haul. He was an incredibly huge man, taller even than those specially-bred movie stars, who averaged eight feet tall. Madeleine felt faint and clung to her camel. The Martian camels were coughing and wheezing and the sun glared horribly in the early afternoon.
Mr. Ericson looked with guarded apprehension at the six-legged camel. Don pulled him aboard. “What a helluva beast!” laughed Ericson. Earth camels specially bred by the big travel agencies to have a so-called “unearthly” appearance. Sad creatures with two extra, dangling limbs and a single, half-blind, blood-shot eye, watery and humbly resentful.
Pathetic mutation, Madeleine thought. Like those horrid rat-fish, like the canals and the games and the ruins and those silly rituals. All ersatz.
The caravan moved along the high ridge, a narrow trail that wound back toward Martian Haven along the edge of the eroded cliffs.
“Maybe the only thing that would satisfy Madeleine,” her father said, “would be a real Martian.”
“But that’s not in the brochure,” Don said.
“What’s Mars without a Martian?” giggled Mrs. Ericson.
In her own insular little world, which had been the only one Madeleine had ever been able to tolerate at all, she swayed and bumped to the camel’s movements. “One thing sure, Don,” she said softly. “There were real Martians once. So why all the phony props? You can’t tell me this nonsense is better than the facts about the real Martians.”
“Ask the boys who built this place. They hired me, they make the rules,” Don said. He did not look at her.
“How did you ever end up with a job like this, Don?”
“The outfit that built the Haven hired all the old Martian colonists and their descendants, any who wanted to work for them. So I took a job. Pay’s good. It’s seasonal. Anyway, I like Mars.”
“Sure,” she said. “You must love it--to corrupt it like this.”
“Mars was here, it’ll still be here after the last tourist goes.”
She laughed thinly. Don, with her, was trying to play another role, one he hoped she might find interesting. “You’re a symbol of the phoniness, Don. Trained in the special host schools. Selected for your beautiful resemblance to a statue of Adonis. Artificially created to be an ever-smiling host of good-will, just like these pathetic camels have been bred for an exotic touch. No real intelligence, Don, nor originality. And everything you do or say is right out of the text book on how to make friends and influence tourists.”
Don didn’t look at her. His fingers trembled on the camel’s reins.
“What is this fascinating-sounding ‘Ritual of Love’ going to be like?” giggled Mrs. Ericson.
“It’s an authentic exploitation of actual rituals once held by the Martians,” Don said. “It has a pagan religious significance. The moons were male and female, and when they--ah--united their light, the Martians held feasts, fertility rituals--highly symbolic rites.”
“Only symbolic?” said Mrs. Ericson, pretending blasé disappointment.
“Well,” grinned Don, “the Martians were only human. Just as--ah--well--I must say that a number of tourists have a tendency to chuck their inhibitions during the rituals. But if not on Mars, then where?”
“I still say,” yelled Mr. Ericson from his camel, “that you should spring a live Martian on us.”
“We get plenty of calls for them,” Don said. “But so far we haven’t been able to scare up any.”
“What did they look like?” asked Mrs. Ericson.
“Nobody knows. The only Martians around now are--ghosts,” Don said, with a strange softness. “A few old prospectors, fakirs, beggars live in these hills--hermits. They claim they see Martians, know they’re here. They believe in ghosts. The Martian sun drives them crazy.”
“Like that old man we saw coming out here,” said Mr. Ericson.
Don nodded. “They’re dangerous. You must stay away from them, you understand. Or you’ll get the contamination.”
For the first time, Madeleine felt that Don was touching something real. She straightened. “Contamination?”
“Those crazy old guys are like lepers. They stay apart from everybody else. But if you go to them, you pay for it. And if you’re contaminated, it’ll cost. If you really get it, you can’t be cured at all. You die.”
No one said anything. Odd, Madeleine thought, his coming out with scare talk. Didn’t seem to be good propaganda. Then she got it, and laughed a little. “Sensationalism,” she said. “Pure bunk.”
“What is this contamination?” Mr. Ericson said.
“An alien virus. Martian. Nobody’s been able to isolate it. If a case isn’t too bad we cure it in the antiseptic wards, but otherwise--well, you just wither away and die in a few hours. You’re all shriveled up and look like a mummy.”
“That’s horrible!” whispered Mrs. Ericson.
“They’re diseased fakirs who say they can read the sands, predict your future, bring you paradise, for five credits. But stay away from them!”
And just at that moment, as though on cue, Madeleine thought, the old man stepped out about fifty feet in front of Don’s camel, and blocked the narrow trail.
“Caravan halt!” Don yelled and raised his hand.
Not knowing why, laughing and exclaiming, the long line of the caravan halted. And Madeleine stared ahead into the old man’s face. The old man was dirty, bent and very ancient and hairless, with only a soiled robe of crude but heavy cloth hanging on his frame. There was nothing that seemed very much alive about him except his eyes.
Even he was a stereotype, she thought. The classic old hermit character. The yogi, the magi, the wise old man, the Hindu Rope Trick, look into my crystal ball, I am the teller of the sands--
But her heart was pounding extraordinarily loud. His eyes--
Don jumped from his camel. His hands were shaking as he raised his quirt. “Out of the way!” he shouted, then turned slightly. “Don’t come any nearer, folks! It’ll be all right. I’ll have him out of the way in a minute.”
“We’ll all be contaminated,” whispered Mrs. Ericson.
“Just stay clear. You have to contact them directly to be contaminated,” Don said.
He stopped five feet from the old man and raised his quirt. The old man looked only at Madeleine, then shook his head slowly up and down as though reaffirming some special secret. As though he shared some secret with her.
“Five credits,” the old man said, in a loud whisper. “And I’ll read the sands for you. The Martian sands know all your secrets and the timelessness of your dreams. Let them speak to you, through me, for five credits.”
Don swung the quirt savagely. It was heavy, and it thudded and smacked across the old man’s face and chest. He fell in the middle of the trail.
The sun wheeled crazily. Madeleine could hear her mother screaming and her father yelling as she moved, as though in a trance, toward the old man. Her feet slipped, stumbled in the shale. The old man crawled a little, got up, fell again.
She was screaming at Don to stop.
The old man had fallen to one side and the trail was clear now.
“Let him alone! Let him alone!” Madeleine screamed. “He’s out of the way!”
“Madeleine!” Mr. Ericson shouted. “Come back! Get away from that beggar, right now, or we return to Earth in the morning!”
For the first time in her life, that she could remember, her father’s threats meant nothing. But the old fear was there as she moved toward the Martian hermit, on a painful tightwire of impulse between threat and desire. She had learned that for any real feeling--fear, joy, pain or even the dimmest-remembered pleasure, you paid a dear price. But she moved on.
The old man’s face was bleeding. She saw the long welts of red on the flesh, and the blood-flecks and tortured little broken channels of blood crossing it. Sound roared around her as she eluded Don’s hands and knelt down, took the old man’s head in her arms. She tilted her canteen to his lips.
There was a kind of strange triumph in the old man’s eyes as he peered past her for only a moment and looked at Don. And from somewhere--Madeleine couldn’t even tell whether it was real--came a thought.
“Madeleine--come back. Come back when you can. And you will find joy.“
Later she knew how she kicked and screamed at them as they dragged her away. How Mrs. Ericson was embarrassed by the display, and how her father refused to touch her because of the fear of contamination. And her mother weeping, later, because of the disgrace and because of what the other guests would think.
In the shiny antiseptic ward at Martian Haven, the virus was burned out by a certain number of roentgens of carefully proportioned X-rays, gamma rays and neutron bombardment. She kept thinking of the old man’s eyes, of the stray thought that promised joy.
She kept seeing the old man lying off the trail among the rocks, how he had raised himself on his elbow, and how he waggled the blood-clot of his head in the glaring sun as they dragged Madeleine away.
Occasionally she thought of the whole project--in Mars, Mecca of Earth tourists, Martian Haven, Dream City of the Solar System--that was so colorful and impressive and exotic to others, and she wondered if it was all really as ridiculous as it seemed to her.
She lay there in the dark of the room as evening reached over the dead sea bottom toward the edifice that was Martian Haven. Out there in the big amphitheatre, resurrected supposedly from old Martian ruins, Martian Haven, with all of its rich, efficient facilities and staff, was preparing the stage, props and guests for the Love Ritual of the Double Moons.
The core and centerpiece of Martian Haven was a great cubistic hotel, with the two Martian canals on two sides, renovated, of course, and a five-mile-long artificial lake on a third side. It was somehow designed, in the middle of all that vast emptiness of dead sea, sand and eroded rock, to have a not-ungraceful look of insubstantiality, as though at any moment it might open great wings of some sort and take off into the Martian nowhere by which it was so overwhelmingly surrounded. The side that faced the lake curved in a half-moon, so that it commanded a wide prospect to the eroded hills that had once been mountains to the west and to the east thousands of unbroken miles of desert, that had once, they said, been an ocean.
When Madeleine opened her eyes, it was night. On many a starry night she had lain inside walls not so different from these, and felt much the same, she thought, surrounded by a desert of her own. Away off there in the blackness, Earth shone palely--and she might as well never have left it at all.
And then again she saw the old hermit’s eyes out there in the dark, his burning eyes where there should be only sterile emptiness in the night. And his voice calling where there would otherwise have been only the dusty echoes of an arid past.