On Mars, the dust is yellow, and microscopically fine. With the result that it penetrates to the sensitive lung tissues of a human being, causing distress. Crossing the street toward the dive set into the towering wall of the cliff overhead, Jim Ronson sneezed violently. He wished fervidly that he might get another glimpse of what Robert Heinlein, two centuries before, had nostalgically called _The Cool Green Hills of Earth_, and again smell air that had no dust in it. Deep inside of him a small voice whispered that he would be very lucky if he ever saw the green hills of Earth again.
Somewhere ahead of him, in the granite core of the mountain, was something that no human had ever seen. Rumors of what was here had reached Jim Ronson. They had been sufficiently exciting to lift him out of an Earth laboratory and to bring him on a space ship to Mars, feverishly sleep-learning the Martian language as he made the hop, to investigate what might be here in this granite mountain near the south pole of the Red Planet. Some Martians knew what was here. In Mars Port, Ronson had talked to one who obviously knew. But the Martian either could not or would not tell what he knew.
Across the street, squatting against the wall, were a dozen Martians. One was segregated from the rest. They watched the human get out of the dothar drawn cart that had brought him from the jet taxi that had landed on the sand outside this village, pay his fare, and come toward them. Taking a half-hitch around his courage, Ronson moved past them. He glanced down at the one sitting apart from the rest, then averted his eyes, unease and discomfort rising in him. The Martian was a leper. Ronson forced himself to look again. The sores were clearly visible, the eyes were dull and apathetic, without hope. As if some of the leper’s hopelessness were communicated to him, Ronson felt a touch of despair. In this place, if the rumors were true, how could there be a leper? How--He paused as one of the Martians squatting on the sidewalk rose to bar his way.
On the Red Planet, humans were strictly on their own. If they got themselves into trouble, no consular agent was available to help them. If they got killed, no representative of Earth law came to ask why or to bring the killers to human justice. No amount of argument or persuasion on the part of delegates from Earth had ever produced a treaty guaranteeing the lives or even the safety of humans who went beyond the limits of Mars Port. The Martians simply could not see any reason for protecting these strange creatures who had come uninvited across space. Let humans look out for themselves!
The Martian who rose in front of Ronson was big and looked mean. Four knives hung from the belt circling his waist. Ronson did not doubt that the fellow could stab very expertly with the knives or that he could throw them with the accuracy of a bullet within a range of thirty feet. In the side pocket of the heavy dothar-skin coat that he wore, Ronson had a zen gun which he had purchased before leaving Mars Port. The little weapon threw an explosive bullet guaranteed to change forever the mind of any human or any Martian who got in the way of it. Ronson did not doubt that he could draw and fire the gun before the Martian could use one of the knives but he also knew that he did not want to start a fight here in the street. What was inside the mountain was too important to risk.
“Happy wind time,” Ronson said. This greeting was good manners anywhere on Mars. He bowed to the Martian. As he bowed, the fellow snatched his hat, held it aloft as a trophy.
Laughter echoed through the watching Martians. Only the leper was unmoved. The Martian put the hat on his own head, where it sank down over his ears. He wiggled his scalp and the hat danced. The laughter grew stronger.
Ronson kept his temper. “I’ll take my hat back,” he said, politely.
“Ho!” the Martian said. “Try and get it.”
“I want my hat back,” Ronson said, a little less politely. Inside, he was coming to a boil. Like a stupid child, this Martian was playing a silly game. To them, this was fun. To the human, it was not fun. A wrong move on his part, or even no move, and they might be on him like wolves, endangering the purpose that had brought him here. Or had Les Ro, catching wind somehow of his visit, set these stupid creatures across his path? At the thought, the anger rising inside of him became a feeling of cold.
Another squatting Martian rose. “I’ll take his coat,” the second one announced.
A third was rising. “Me for his breeks!”
They were going to disrobe him, strip him naked, for the sake of his clothes. Ronson did not in the least doubt that they would do it, or try to do it. The only law protecting humans on this planet was what they could make up as individuals and enforce for themselves. He reached for the gun in the side pocket of the dothar skin coat.
The Martian who had taken his hat reached out and grabbed his arm. The fellow had steel claws for hands instead of flesh and blood. The claws clamped over Ronson’s arm with a paralyzing grip that seemed to squeeze the very nerves in their sheaths.
Ronson slugged with his left fist, very hard and very fast, a blow that landed flush on the jaw of the Martian. The fellow blinked but was not damaged. He grinned. “Ho! Human wants to fight!” He seemed to find satisfaction in the idea. He reached out with his other hand, grasping for Ronson’s neck this time.
Ronson had not been in a rough and tumble fight since he was a kid but he discovered that he had not forgotten how to bring up his knee and jab his antagonist in the stomach. Only this time it didn’t work. The Martian brought down an elbow and deflected the rising leg. His groping fingers found Ronson’s neck, closed there with a grip that was as tight as the grip around the human’s right arm. The other Martians drew closer. As soon as Te Hold had subdued this alien, they intended to have his clothes right down to the skin. Maybe they would take the skin too, if they could find any value in it. They were so engrossed in watching Te Hold tame this human that they did not notice the door of the joint open behind them. Nor did they see the girl come out.
She was not in the least surprised at the fight in the street, nor was she in any doubt as to what to do about it. In her hand, she had a spring gun, one of those little weapons that are spring powered and which throw steel needles coated with the extremely powerful synthetic narcotic, thormoline. Hardly seeming to take aim, she shot the Martian who was holding Ronson in the back. Te Hold jumped as the needle stung him but he did not let go of Ronson. The spring gun pinged again as the girl put another needle in his back.
Te Hold jumped again. He released his grip on Ronson’s throat. The human gulped air, and slugged Te Hold again, harder this time. The fast-acting narcotic was already taking effect. Te Hold went over like a falling tree.
Jim Ronson snatched the zen gun from his pocket, then saw that he did not need it. The girl had been busy with the needle weapon. Two of the Martians were also down and the rest were in full flight, except the leper, who had not moved. Standing in front of the door, the girl was calmly shooting needles at their legs as they ran.
Not until then did Ronson really see the girl. He blinked startled eyes at her. Human women were rare on Mars, here in this place near the south pole they should not exist at all. No woman in her right mind would come here. But one was here, and a darned attractive one at that. She was tall, lithe, and full breasted. The hair peeping out from under the tight fitting-helmet was a shade of red. If she had a fault in her figure, it was the fact that her hips were too narrow--she was as slender as a boy--but Ronson was not inclined to criticize her for that. Not when she had just saved his clothes and maybe his life.
As the last Martian dodged around the corner, she turned her attention to him. A smile lit her face.
“Dr. Ronson! A privilege to meet you, sir.” Hand outstretched, smiling, she moved around the victims of her needle gun and came toward him.
Ronson stared at her in bewildered consternation. He had not thought that anyone on Mars would even know his name, he had not wanted anyone to know his identity. Especially not in this place. He barely remembered his manners in time to take the hand offered him.
“I’m Jennie Ware,” the girl said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Miss Ware.” Where had he heard or seen this name before? “I want--ah--to thank you for helping me out of a spot.”
“It was nothing,” she said smiling. “Always glad to help my fellow men.”
“You certainly went into action fast.” He glanced at Te Hold, sleeping in the street. On the sidewalk near the corner, another Martian was taking a nap. Only the leper was still in sight and awake.
“I had these needles coated with a special narcotic designed to affect the Martian nervous system. As to my going into action fast, I’ve discovered that you have to be firm with these Martians,” she answered smiling.
Stooping, he retrieved his hat. “How did you know me?”
A little flicker of amusement showed in her eyes. “Why shouldn’t I recognize Earth’s foremost bio-physicist and leading authority on cellular structure? Come on in. I’ll buy you a drink. You’ll love this place. They’ve even got a waiter who thinks he can speak English.”
.... There is more of this story ...