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.”
“Thanks,” Ronson said. “I’ll take you up on that.” He was astonished and bewildered by this woman. He had spent most of his life in the laboratories of Earth. The women who had been there had been flat-breasted, pale creatures in low-heeled shoes who had called him “Sir,” and “Doctor,” and who had obviously been greatly in awe of him but who had apparently never had a red-blooded thought in their lives. He had regarded them as a sort of neuter sex, creatures who had obviously been intended by nature to be female but who had gotten their hormones mixed up somewhere along the line. This girl was different.
Her name, somehow, had a haunting familiarity, as if he had heard it somewhere before. But he couldn’t remember where.
She went through the door ahead of him. As Ronson passed through, a Martian thrust his head around the corner outside and threw a knife. The steel blade buried in the door facing within six inches of the human’s head. He hastily ducked through the door.
Looking annoyed, the girl started back to the street outside. “I’ll fix him,” she said, pulling the needle gun.
Ronson caught her shoulder. “Let well enough alone,” he said firmly. “Anyhow you were going to buy me a drink.”
Her eyes held a curious mixture of annoyance, defiance, and longing. Her gaze went down to his hand on her shoulder. Ronson grinned at her. “You look as if you are about to bite me,” he said. “Go ahead, if you want to.” He did not move his hand.
Wonder came into her face. “A great many men have tried to paw me, without getting very far. But somehow, I don’t think you’re trying to do that.”
“About that drink?” Ronson said.
“Sure.” She moved toward a table set against the far wall.
Ronson dared to breathe again. Whatever else this girl was, she was certainly full of fight and fury. She could have gone out into the street, in the face of thrown knives, if he hadn’t stopped her. As she moved toward the table, he had a chance to look at the place in which he found himself.
What he saw was not reassuring. Except for a big circle in the center of the room, the place was crammed with Martian males of all sizes and descriptions. Waiters scurried through the crowd. The circle on the floor was outlined in red. No customer and no Martian ventured within it. Ronson glanced at it, asked the girl a question.
“I just got here too,” she said. “I haven’t had time to find out about it. Some superstition of theirs, I think.” She led him to the table. Two glasses were already on it. A waiter appeared out of nowhere. “This is the one who speaks English. Talk to the gentleman, Tocko.”
“Oh, yessen, missen. Me talken ze English and but very gooden. Me learnen ze human talken at Mars Porten. Don’t I talk him gooden?” The last was directed at Ronson.
“You speak him very wonderfullen,” Ronson answered. The waiter beamed.
“Bring the gentleman a mariwaukee,” the girl said.
“Oh, yessen, missen.”
“On second thought, make it a double shot,” the girl said. “The gentleman looks like he needs it.” She nodded brightly to Ronson as if she had selected the very medicine he needed. “Now tell me what you are doing on Mars, Dr. Ronson?”
Ronson glanced hastily at the waiter, to make certain that he was out of earshot. “I--I came here on a vacation,” he said firmly and loudly. “I’ve wanted to see Mars ever since I was a kid. Who--ah--was sitting here with you before I came?”
“A man,” she answered. “He went to the little boy’s room just before you got into trouble in the street. I guess he’s still there, if some Martian hasn’t slit his throat. Are you enjoying your vacation?”
“Do you mind if I call you Jim?” She smiled at him.
“I would be very pleased.”
“Good. You can call me Jennie.”
“Then you are enjoying your vacation.” Her smile was very sweet. “Are you also enjoying trying to lie to me--Jim?”
Ronson caught his start of surprise. Jennie Ware bewildered him but this was a game that two could play. “Of course I’m enjoying it. Lying to a woman as beautiful as you are is always a pleasure--Jennie.” He grinned at her and watched the anger come up on her face. Why should she be angry?
The anger was gone as swiftly as it had come. She leaned across the table, put her hand on his. “I like you Jim. I really do. And not because you called me a beautiful woman but because you kicked me in the teeth with my own act. I had it coming and you gave it to me very neatly.”
The touch of her hand was very pleasant. “No hard feelings. What--ah--are you doing here, Jennie?”
She smiled sweetly at him. “I’m on a vacation too, Jim.”
“Touche!” The females in the laboratories back on earth had never touched his hand or called him by his first name. He wondered about the man with whom she had been drinking. Also he was very uneasy about her real reason for being here. No woman with good sense would make the rough rocket trip to Mars for a vacation; presuming she did come to Mars, she would not willingly come to this place. But Jennie Ware was here, an enigma wrapped up in a beautiful smile. He took his eyes off her long enough to look around the place again.
In Mars Port, he had seen the native dives, but Mars Port had nothing like this. To the natives, this was a place of pleasure, filled with sights, sounds, and smells that made them happy. Over against the farther wall a tribal chieftan was absorbing narseeth through the skin of his hands, thrusting them again and again into the sirupy, smoky-colored mixture in the bowl in front of him. Every so often he stopped, whereupon the Martian female with him carefully dried his hands. After they were dry, he made fumbling passes at her. She accepted the passes without resistance. Ronson stared at the sight.
“Relax. You’ll get used to it,” Jennie Ware said.
At another table a huge Martian was sitting. Two others were with him. One sat facing the rear, the other faced the front. Ronson had the impression of two alert dogs guarding their master. A little chill passed through him at the thought.
Odors were in the place, of sweat dried into dothar skin garments, of stale drinks. Dim but distinct was the all-pervading clinging, cloying odor of tamil, the Martian equivalent of musk. Through an opening at the right, Ronson could see females lounging at ease in what was apparently a reception room to a brothel.
Unease came up in him again. How could this place be the way to Les Ro? But the rumors he had picked up and carefully checked in Mars Port had all been in agreement, if you wanted to see Les Ro, you came here. What happened after that was obviously fate.
Watching, Ronson saw that no Martian entered the circle on the floor.
He nodded toward the Martian females. “What do you think of this?”
“Oh, a girl has to live,” she said, shrugging. “What do you think?”
“Oh, a Martian has to have fun, I suppose.” His shrug was as indifferent as hers had been. For an instant, he thought she was going to spit at him.
The waiter arrived with the drink.
“I have putten you on ze listen,” he said, confidentially, to Ronson.
“On the listen?”
“He means list,” Jennie Ware said.
“What list?” Ronson asked.
“On ze listen of zozen waiten to see ze great Les Ro,” the waiter answered.
Inside of him, Ronson felt cold come up. Strictly on his own, he had to decide how he was going to handle this. He made up his mind on impulse. “Who the devil is Les Ro?”
Across the table, Jennie Ware lifted startled eyes toward Ronson. The waiter’s face showed astonishment, then embarrassment, at the idea that anyone existed who had not heard of Les Ro, Ronson thought. “You do not knowen ze great Les Ro. He is ze greatest zinker, ze greatest doer, ze greatest--”
“Stinker?” Jennie Ware said. “That sounds about right.”
“You are maken ze kidden wiz me,” the waiter said, indignation in his voice. “You have hearden of ze great Les Ro. You came here to see him. You musten haven. Everybody who comes here, comes to see him.” The waiter spoke with authority.
“I’m sorry,” Ronson said. “If he is that important, I would like to talk to him, of course. But do you mean all of these Martians are waiting to see him?” A wave of his hand indicated the group in the room.
The waiter, mollified, leered at Ronson. “Ze girls didn’t. Ze girls come here for anuzzer purpose.” The leering gesture included Jennie Ware in it. It said that obviously she had come here for the same purpose. What other purpose was there?
The girl gasped. Fire shot from her eyes. “I’ll have you know--”
“Shut up,” Ronson said.
Fire flashed at him. “Hasn’t it occurred to you that you are in danger of getting your pretty little throat slit if you talk out of turn here?” Ronson whispered.
“Even ze noffers outside are on ze listen,” the waiter added.
“What about me? Am I on it?” Jennie asked.
The waiter showed great astonishment. “But of course not. You are a female.”
“What difference does that make?” This time the fire really shot from her eyes.
“How long do you have to wait after you’re on the listen?” Ronson hastily asked.
The waiter spread his hands and twisted his shoulders. “Who knows? Some of ze noffers outside have been waiting since last wind time--”
“Almost an Earth year,” Ronson said, calculating rapidly. Once during each circle of the sun the great winds blew across Mars. This was the biggest natural event on the planet. Since it occurred with the regularity of clock work, it served as the starting point for their year.
“Sometimes ze great Les Ro call you right away,” the waiter said.
“How will I know if I’m called?” Ronson said.
A shudder passed over the waiter. “You vill know. Of a most certain, you vill know. Ze Messenger vill call.” The shudder came again. As if he had already said too much, the waiter hurried away. Ronson turned back to Jennie Ware. She was sparkling with fury.
“If they think they’re going to keep me from seeing Les Ro just because I’m a woman--”
“Why do you want to see him? He probably isn’t pretty.”
“Because I want to write a book about him.”
“A book--” Ronson’s memory suddenly came alive and he remembered where he had seen her name before. He stared at her, startled and almost aghast. Back on Earth, this woman was almost a legend. Every tabloid and every Sunday supplement had carried her picture and stories about her. The programs beamed to space had carried tales of her exploits. She had explored the depths of the Venusian jungles, she had ridden a dothar across half of Mars. When Deep Space Flight One had blasted off from Pluto, bound for the exploration of deep space, the news telecasts back to Earth had carried the information that a stowaway had been discovered and ejected from the ship just before blast off. No one had been surprised when this stowaway had turned out to be Jennie Ware. Subsequent rumors had whispered that she had practically torn Pluto Dome apart because she had been ejected from the ship. Even the fact that the ship had never returned had not cooled her anger.
In addition, she was also a very competent author. Ronson had read two of her books and had admired her deft touch with words and the deep sincerity that had showed through in even the most hard-boiled and raucous passages. Unquestionably Jennie Ware was a very unusual human being.
But in spite of this, Ronson stared at her in growing horror. Her reputation across the solar system was that of an uninhibited vixen. Here in this place, where their lives might ride on the blinking of an eye-lash, or on not blinking it, a temper tantrum thrown by Jennie Ware--or by anybody else--was the last thing he wanted to see.
A tall figure loomed beside the table. A deep voice asked, laughingly, “Well, Jim, since you’ve already met our lady authoress, how do you like her?”
Ronson looked up, then got up, his hand going out, a grin spurting to his face. The man standing there, Sam Crick, took the outstretched hand and grinned back at him.
Crick was tall and lean. His skin was tanned a deep brown, a color that had resulted from facing all the winds that had ever blown on Mars and all the sun that had ever shown there. Crick was something of a legend on the Red Planet. He was the eternal adventurer, the lonely wanderer of the waste place, the type of human who was always looking for something that lay just over the edge of the horizon.
Jim Ronson and Sam Crick had grown up together as boys on Earth. Ronson had gone into a laboratory, Crick had hopped a freighter bound for Mars. Ronson had not seen his old friend in many years, but he had heard from him and about him. A feeling of deep warmth came up inside the scientist at the sight of the tanned face grinning at him.
“Then you did get my space radio?” Ronson said. “I couldn’t locate you in Mars Port and I was never sure.” Relief at finding Crick here was a surging feeling deep within him. With Crick here, he not only had a man experienced in Martian ways and customs to help him, but what was more important, he had a friend.
Crick’s face lost its smile. Wrinkles showed on his forehead. “What space radio, Jim?”
“The one I sent you, asking you to meet me here. Quit kidding me. If you didn’t get my space radio, how does it happen that you’re here? Don’t tell me this is a coincidence.”
Crick shook his head. A doleful expression appeared on his face. “I sure didn’t get it, Jim. As to what I’m doing here, I’m chaperoning our lady authoress. Meet my boss.” He nodded to Jennie Ware.
Ronson turned startled eyes toward the girl.
“I caught him flat broke in Mars Port just before you arrived,” she answered. “Since he was broke, I took advantage of him and hired him as my bodyguard. Not that I would really need a bodyguard, but in case I fell and broke a leg, he might be handy. But his being here wasn’t a coincidence.”
“Eh?” Ronson said. It was difficult to follow her thinking. She seemed to say a lot, or nothing, all with the same words, the only difference being the voice tone she used. If she chose, she had all the gifts of a man in concealing her true feelings and real opinions.
Her voice was calm, her face expressionless. “The grapevine in Mars Port said the Earth’s top-flight bio-physicist was coming here, that old Les Ro was thought to have something that human scientists were all hotted up about, and that you were coming here to investigate, and to chisel Les Ro out of a piece of it, if he would stand still for such treatment.”
Ronson blinked at her. She had delivered a bombshell and she had done it as if she thought what she said was of no importance: “I’m not trying to chisel Les Ro or anybody out of anything.” His calm matched her aplomb.
“That’s not the way the grapevine had it.”
“I don’t care how the grapevine had it. I know my own motives and my purpose in coming here.” An edge crept into his voice as he realized one possible result of what she was saying.
“That may be true. But do the Martians know them?”
Ronson was silent, his thinking perturbed.
“So I hired Sam and came here,” Jennie Ware continued. “If Les Ro was big enough to attract you, he was also big enough to provide me with copy for my next book.”
“So you could find copy for a damned book, you risked my neck!” Ronson said, his voice hot.
“I didn’t risk it a tenth as much as you’re doing, by yelling at the top of your lungs where half of Mars can hear you. Anyhow, I saved your clothes and maybe your hide out in front a while ago. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Sorry,” Ronson said abruptly. “I lost my temper.”
“I’d like to make one point,” Crick said. “We’ve got a mighty hot collection of thieves, crooks, and killers present in this joint.”
Jennie Ware and Jim Ronson stared at him.
Crick gestured toward the Martian with the two guards. “That’s Tal Bock. He belongs in the upper lentz country, where he is the leader of a gang of killers and thieves. The one over there soaking his hands in smoke is Kus Dorken. He’s not any better than Tal Bock.”
“What are they doing here?” the girl asked.
“I don’t know,” Crick answered. “Unless maybe they’ve been listening in on the grapevine too.”
For a moment, it looked as if Jennie Ware was about to cry. She seemed, suddenly, to become a small girl who had done something wrong and was very sorry for it and was trying to find some way to express her sorrow. Her hand came across the table again, touched Ronson’s hand hesitantly.
“I’m sorry, Jim, if I got you into trouble. But I knew your reputation. If you were coming here, something big was here. I--I wanted to be in on it. I guess all my life I’ve wanted to be in on something big. If I actually got you into trouble, Sam and I are here to help you get out of it. Isn’t that right, Sam?”
“Right, Jennie.” A growl sounded in the tall adventurer’s voice. “Thanks, both of you,” Ronson said. He was deeply touched. In spite of the shell of bravado that she wore, and her sudden spurting anger, he liked this girl. She might have the reputation of an uninhibited vixen, but somewhere inside of her was a small girl looking out from awed and wondering eyes at the vastness of the world.
“Watch it!” Crick’s whisper was shrill and sharp. His eyes were focused on the ceiling.
All the sounds of the place, the rattle of glasses, the sharp giggling of soliciting women, the deep voices of the Martian males, had gone into sudden and complete silence. Like Crick, they were looking upward. Ronson followed their gaze to the ceiling. Jennie Ware gave a quick cry. Glass tinkled and broke as she dropped her drink.
Jim Ronson did not hear the sound. His entire attention was focused on what was happening on the ceiling.
The dive itself had been cut into the side of the cliff. The solid rock of the ceiling had not been disguised or masked.
At first glance, Ronson thought his eyes were deceiving him. The solid stone itself seemed to be in motion. A sort of melting, shifting flow seemed to be taking place as if the molecules and perhaps even the atoms themselves were dissolving.
“That’s atomic disintegration, or atomic shifting, under control!” Sam Crick gasped.
“It’s a mirage,” Jennie Ware whispered. “It must be.”
“If it’s a mirage, everybody in the place is seeing it,” Ronson said.
There was not a sound in the huge room. The waiters had come to attention like trained soldiers. The females had abruptly lost all interest in what they were doing. Out of the corner of his eyes, Ronson saw one female make a sudden darting movement across the room. One foot touched the circle on the floor as she ran. She took two more steps and fell, sagging downward as if every muscle in her body had suddenly refused to function. She lay on the floor without moving. Not a head was turned toward her, not a Martian moved to help her. In her action Ronson saw one reason why the Martians avoided the circle on the floor. Something was definitely wrong with that circle. Looking at the roof, he saw the reason.
The flowing, shifting movement there had formed into a circle the same size as the circle on the floor and directly above it. Little flickers of light, like the discharge of high frequency currents, were flowing between the two circles. Swiftly the flickers of light became an opaque cylinder of misty flame extending from the ceiling to the floor.
From the opaque cylinder of light, a Martian stepped.
Without quite knowing how he knew it, Ronson knew that this was Les Ro’s Messenger.
The Messenger was old, perhaps as old as the granite mountain above them, if the network of fine wrinkles on his face were an accurate indication of his age. With age, calmness and serenity had come to this Martian. His eyes gave the impression that they had seen everything. What they had not seen, the brain behind them had imagined. Peace was in the eyes and on the face, the deep peace that many human saints had sought and had found.