The night whispered the message. Over the many miles of loneliness it was borne, carried on the wind, rustled by the half-sentient lichens and the dwarfed trees, murmured from one to another of the little creatures that huddled under crags, in caves, by shadowy dunes. In no words, but in a dim pulsing of dread which echoed through Kreega’s brain, the warning ran--
They are hunting again.
Kreega shuddered in a sudden blast of wind. The night was enormous around him, above him, from the iron bitterness of the hills to the wheeling, glittering constellations light-years over his head. He reached out with his trembling perceptions, tuning himself to the brush and the wind and the small burrowing things underfoot, letting the night speak to him.
Alone, alone. There was not another Martian for a hundred miles of emptiness. There were only the tiny animals and the shivering brush and the thin, sad blowing of the wind.
The voiceless scream of dying traveled through the brush, from plant to plant, echoed by the fear-pulses of the animals and the ringingly reflecting cliffs. They were curling, shriveling and blackening as the rocket poured the glowing death down on them, and the withering veins and nerves cried to the stars.
Kreega huddled against a tall gaunt crag. His eyes were like yellow moons in the darkness, cold with terror and hate and a slowly gathering resolution. Grimly, he estimated that the death was being sprayed in a circle some ten miles across. And he was trapped in it, and soon the hunter would come after him.
He looked up to the indifferent glitter of stars, and a shudder went along his body. Then he sat down and began to think.
It had started a few days before, in the private office of the trader Wisby.
“I came to Mars,” said Riordan, “to get me an owlie.”
Wisby had learned the value of a poker face. He peered across the rim of his glass at the other man, estimating him.
Even in God-forsaken holes like Port Armstrong one had heard of Riordan. Heir to a million-dollar shipping firm which he himself had pyramided into a System-wide monster, he was equally well known as a big game hunter. From the firedrakes of Mercury to the ice crawlers of Pluto, he’d bagged them all. Except, of course, a Martian. That particular game was forbidden now.
He sprawled in his chair, big and strong and ruthless, still a young man. He dwarfed the unkempt room with his size and the hard-held dynamo strength in him, and his cold green gaze dominated the trader.
“It’s illegal, you know,” said Wisby. “It’s a twenty-year sentence if you’re caught at it.”
“Bah! The Martian Commissioner is at Ares, halfway round the planet. If we go at it right, who’s ever to know?” Riordan gulped at his drink. “I’m well aware that in another year or so they’ll have tightened up enough to make it impossible. This is the last chance for any man to get an owlie. That’s why I’m here.”
Wisby hesitated, looking out the window. Port Armstrong was no more than a dusty huddle of domes, interconnected by tunnels, in a red waste of sand stretching to the near horizon. An Earthman in airsuit and transparent helmet was walking down the street and a couple of Martians were lounging against a wall. Otherwise nothing--a silent, deadly monotony brooding under the shrunken sun. Life on Mars was not especially pleasant for a human.
“You’re not falling into this owlie-loving that’s corrupted all Earth?” demanded Riordan contemptuously.
“Oh, no,” said Wisby. “I keep them in their place around my post. But times are changing. It can’t be helped.”
“There was a time when they were slaves,” said Riordan. “Now those old women on Earth want to give ‘em the vote.” He snorted.
“Well, times are changing,” repeated Wisby mildly. “When the first humans landed on Mars a hundred years ago, Earth had just gone through the Hemispheric Wars. The worst wars man had ever known. They damned near wrecked the old ideas of liberty and equality. People were suspicious and tough--they’d had to be, to survive. They weren’t able to--to empathize the Martians, or whatever you call it. Not able to think of them as anything but intelligent animals. And Martians made such useful slaves--they need so little food or heat or oxygen, they can even live fifteen minutes or so without breathing at all. And the wild Martians made fine sport--intelligent game, that could get away as often as not, or even manage to kill the hunter.”
“I know,” said Riordan. “That’s why I want to hunt one. It’s no fun if the game doesn’t have a chance.”
“It’s different now,” went on Wisby. “Earth has been at peace for a long time. The liberals have gotten the upper hand. Naturally, one of their first reforms was to end Martian slavery.”
Riordan swore. The forced repatriation of Martians working on his spaceships had cost him plenty. “I haven’t time for your philosophizing,” he said. “If you can arrange for me to get a Martian, I’ll make it worth your while.”
“How much worth it?” asked Wisby.
They haggled for a while before settling on a figure. Riordan had brought guns and a small rocketboat, but Wisby would have to supply radioactive material, a “hawk,” and a rockhound. Then he had to be paid for the risk of legal action, though that was small. The final price came high.
“Now, where do I get my Martian?” inquired Riordan. He gestured at the two in the street. “Catch one of them and release him in the desert?”
It was Wisby’s turn to be contemptuous. “One of them? Hah! Town loungers! A city dweller from Earth would give you a better fight.”
The Martians didn’t look impressive. They stood only some four feet high on skinny, claw-footed legs, and the arms, ending in bony four-fingered hands, were stringy. The chests were broad and deep, but the waists were ridiculously narrow. They were viviparous, warm-blooded, and suckled their young, but gray feathers covered their hides. The round, hook-beaked heads, with huge amber eyes and tufted feather ears, showed the origin of the name “owlie.” They wore only pouched belts and carried sheath knives; even the liberals of Earth weren’t ready to allow the natives modern tools and weapons. There were too many old grudges.
“The Martians always were good fighters,” said Riordan. “They wiped out quite a few Earth settlements in the old days.”
“The wild ones,” agreed Wisby. “But not these. They’re just stupid laborers, as dependent on our civilization as we are. You want a real old timer, and I know where one’s to be found.”
He spread a map on the desk. “See, here in the Hraefnian Hills, about a hundred miles from here. These Martians live a long time, maybe two centuries, and this fellow Kreega has been around since the first Earthmen came. He led a lot of Martian raids in the early days, but since the general amnesty and peace he’s lived all alone up there, in one of the old ruined towers. A real old-time warrior who hates Earthmen’s guts. He comes here once in a while with furs and minerals to trade, so I know a little about him.” Wisby’s eyes gleamed savagely. “You’ll be doing us all a favor by shooting the arrogant bastard. He struts around here as if the place belonged to him. And he’ll give you a run for your money.”
Riordan’s massive dark head nodded in satisfaction.
The man had a bird and a rockhound. That was bad. Without them, Kreega could lose himself in the labyrinth of caves and canyons and scrubby thickets--but the hound could follow his scent and the bird could spot him from above.
To make matters worse, the man had landed near Kreega’s tower. The weapons were all there--now he was cut off, unarmed and alone save for what feeble help the desert life could give. Unless he could double back to the place somehow--but meanwhile he had to survive.
He sat in a cave, looking down past a tortured wilderness of sand and bush and wind-carved rock, miles in the thin clear air to the glitter of metal where the rocket lay. The man was a tiny speck in the huge barren landscape, a lonely insect crawling under the deep-blue sky. Even by day, the stars glistened in the tenuous atmosphere. Weak pallid sunlight spilled over rocks tawny and ocherous and rust-red, over the low dusty thorn-bushes and the gnarled little trees and the sand that blew faintly between them. Equatorial Mars!
Lonely or not, the man had a gun that could spang death clear to the horizon, and he had his beasts, and there would be a radio in the rocketboat for calling his fellows. And the glowing death ringed them in, a charmed circle which Kreega could not cross without bringing a worse death on himself than the rifle would give--
Or was there a worse death than that--to be shot by a monster and have his stuffed hide carried back as a trophy for fools to gape at? The old iron pride of his race rose in Kreega, hard and bitter and unrelenting. He didn’t ask much of life these days--solitude in his tower to think the long thoughts of a Martian and create the small exquisite artworks which he loved; the company of his kind at the Gathering Season, grave ancient ceremony and acrid merriment and the chance to beget and rear sons; an occasional trip to the Earthling settling for the metal goods and the wine which were the only valuable things they had brought to Mars; a vague dream of raising his folk to a place where they could stand as equals before all the universe. No more. And now they would take even this from him!
.... There is more of this story ...