Except for old Dworken, Kotha’s bar was deserted when I dropped in shortly after midnight. The ship from Earth was still two days away, and the Martian flagship would get in next morning, with seven hundred passengers for Earth on it. Dworken must have been waiting in Luna City a whole week--at six thousand credits a day. That’s as steep to me as it is to you, but money never seemed to worry Dworken.
He raised the heavy green lids from his protruding brown eyes as I came in. He waved his tail.
“Sit down and join me,” he invited, in his guttural voice. “It is not good for a man to drink alone. But I haf no combany in dis by-de-gods-deserted hole. A man must somet’ing be doing, what?”
I sat down in the booth across from my Venusian friend, and stared at him while he punched a new order into the drinkboard.
“For me, another shchikh,” he announced. “And for you? De same?”
Against my better judgment, for I knew I’d have plenty to do handling that mob of tourists--the first crowd of the season is always the roughest--tomorrow, I consented. Dworken had already consumed six of the explosive things, as the empty glasses on the table showed, but he exhibited no effects. I made a mental note, as I’d so often done before, that this time I would not exceed the safe terrestrial limit of two.
“You must be in the money again, drinking imported shchikh,” I remarked. “What are you doing in Luna City this time?”
He merely lifted his heavy eyelids and stared at me without expression.
“Na, in de money I am not. Dere are too many chiselers in business. Just when I t’ink I haf a goot t’ing, I am shwindeled. It is too bad.” He snorted through his ugly snout, making the Venusian equivalent of a sigh. I knew there was a story waiting behind that warty skin, but I was not sure I wanted to hear it. For the next round of drinks would be on me, and shchikh was a hundred and fifty credits a shot. Still, a man on a Moon assignment has to amuse himself somehow.
So I said, “What’s the latest episode in the Dworken soap opera? What is the merchandise this time? Gems? Pet Mercurian fire-insects? A new supply of danghaana?”
“I do not smuggle drugs, dat is a base lie,” replied my friend stolidly. He knew, of course, that I still suspected him to be the source of the last load of that potent narcotic, although I had no more proof than did the Planetary Bureau of Investigation.
He took a long pull at his drink before he spoke again. “But Dworken is never down for long. Dis time it is show business. You remember, how I haf always been by de t’eater so fascinated? Well, I decided to open a show here in Luna City. T’ink of all the travelers, bored stiff by space and de emptiness thereof, who pass through here during the season. Even if only half of them go to my show, it cannot fail.”
I waited for some mention of free tickets, but none was made. I was about as anxious to see Dworken’s show as I was to walk barefoot across the Mare Imbrium, but I asked with what enthusiasm I could force,
“What sort of act are you putting on? Girls?” I shuddered as I recalled the pathetic shop-worn chorus girls that Sam Low had tried to pass off last year on the gullible tourists of the spaceways. That show had lasted ten nights--nine more than it deserved to. There are limits, even to the gullibility of Earth-lubbers.
“Yes, girls,” replied Dworken. “But not what you are perhaps t’inking. Martian girls.”
This was more interesting. Even if the girls were now a little too old for the stage in the Martian capital, they would still get loud cheers on the Moon. I knew. I started to say so, but Dworken interrupted.
“And not de miserable girls dey buy from de slave traders in Behastin. Dese girls I collected myself, from de country along de Upper Canal.”
I repressed my impulse to show my curiosity. It could all be perfectly true--and if it were not the opening night would tell. But it sounded a lot like one of Dworken’s taller tales. I had never been able to disprove any one of them, but I found it a little hard to believe that so many improbable things had ever happened to one man. However, I like being entertained, if it doesn’t cost me too much, so finally I said,
“I suppose you are going to tell me you ventured out into the interior of Mars, carrying a six weeks’ supply of water and oxygen on your back, and visited the Xo theaters on the spot?”
“How did you know? Dat is just what I did,” solemnly affirmed my companion. He snorted again, and looked at his glass. It was empty, but he tilted it into his face again in an eloquent gesture. No words were needed: I punched the symbols for shchikh into the drinkboard on my side of the table. Then, after hesitating, I punched the “two in” signal. I must remember, though, that this was my second and last.
His eighth shchikh seemed to instill some animation into Dworken. “I know you feel skepticality--I mean skepticism--after my exploits. You will see tomorrow night dat I speak true.”
“Amazing!” I said. “Especially as I just happen to remember that three different expeditions from Earth tried to penetrate more than a hundred kilometers from Behastin, but either they couldn’t carry the water and oxygen that far, or they resorted to breathing Mars air, and never came back. And they were Earthmen, not Venusians who are accustomed to two atmospheres of carbon dioxide.”
“My vriend, you must not reason: it was so, it always will be so. The brinciple of induction is long exbloded. I did indeed breathe Mars air. Vait! I tell you how.”
He took another long swig of shchikh. “Vat your Eart’men did not realize was dat dey cannot acclimate themselves as do we Venusians. You know de character of our planet made adaptability a condition of survival. It is true dat our atmosphere is heavy, but on top of our so-high mountains de air is t’in. We must live everywhere, de space is so few. I first adapted myself on Eart’ to live. I was dere a whole year, you vill recollect. Den I go further. Your engineers construct air tanks dat make like de air of mountains, t’in. So, I learn to live in dose tanks. Each day I haf spent one, two, three hours in dem. I get so I can breathe air at one-third the pressure of your already t’in atmosphere. And at one-sixt’ the tension of oxygen. No, my vriend, you could not do this. Your lungs burst. But old Dworken, he has done it.
“I take wit’ me only some water, for I know de Martians dey not give water. To trade, some miniature kerosene lamps. You know dey got no fuel oil now, only atomics, but dese little lamps dey like for antiques, for sentiment, because their great-grandfathers used dem.
“Well, I walk through Vlahas, and not stop. Too close by the capital. Too much contact with men of odder planets. I walk also through Bhur and Zamat. I come to a small place where dey never see foreigner. Name Tasaaha. Oh, I tell you, ze men of ze odder planets do not know Mars. How delightful, how unsboiled, are ze Martians, once you get away from de people by tourists so sboiled! How wonderful, across the sands to go, free as birds! The so friendly greetings of de Martian men. And de Martian women! Ah!