Rebels of the Red Planet
Maya’s education was extensive, but it did not include the genetic sciences. She was able to follow Goat’s explanations and his references to the charts he hung, one after another, on the wall of his study, but she was able to follow them only in a general sense. The technical details escaped her.
Nuwell seemed to have a better grasp of the subject. He nodded his dark, curly head frequently, and occasionally asked a question or two.
“Surgery is performed with a concentrated electron stream on the cells of the early embryo,” said Goat. “I call it surgery, but actually it is an alteration of the structure of certain specific genes which govern the characteristics I am attempting to change. Such changes would, of course, then be transmitted on down to any progeny.
“The earlier the embryo is caught, the easier and surer the surgery, because when it has divided into too many cells the very task of dealing with each one separately makes the time requirement prohibitive, besides multiplying the chance for error. The Martians have a method of altering the physical structure and genetic composition of a full-grown adult, but this is far beyond the stage I’ve reached.”
“The Martians?” repeated Nuwell in astonishment. “You mean the Martian natives? They’re nothing but degenerated animals!”
“You’re wrong,” replied Goat. “I know that’s the general opinion, but I had considerable contact with them a good many years ago. Perhaps most of them are little more than strange animals. No one really knows. They live simple, animal-like lives, holed up in desert caves, and they’re rarely communicative in any way. But I know from my own experience that some of them, at least, are still familiar with that ancient science that they must have possessed when Earth was in an earlier stage of life than the human.”
“This ... child ... that brought us the wine is one of the products of your experiments?” asked Nuwell.
“Yes. Petway’s pretty representative of the children, I’m afraid. I’ve been trying to determine what went wrong. It could be an inaccuracy in dealing with the genetic structure itself, or a failure to follow exactly the same pattern of change in moving from one cell to another in the embryo. If I could only catch one at the single cell stage!
“None of the children has turned out as well as my first two experiments, Brute and Adam. Both of them were born about twenty-five years ago--terrestrial years, that is--and developed into normal, even superior physical specimens. Unfortunately, their mental development was retarded. Adam was the brighter of the two, and Brute killed him tonight, shortly before your arrival.”
“Somehow, it seems horrible to me, experimenting with human lives this way,” she said.
“It’s being done for a good cause, Maya,” said Nuwell. “Dr. Hennessey’s objective is to help man live better on Mars. After all, there is nothing nobler than the individual’s sacrifice of himself for his fellows, whether it’s voluntary or involuntary.”
“But what about the mothers of these children?” asked Maya.
“The big problem is to reach them as soon as possible after conception,” said Goat, misinterpreting her question. “We do this by magnetic detectors, which report instantly the conjunction of the positive and negative. The surgery is performed, as quickly as possible, utilizing the suspended animation technique which is being developed toward interstellar travel.”
“I wasn’t asking about the technical aspects,” said Maya. “What I want to know is, what sort of mothers will permit you to experiment this way on their unborn children, especially seeing the results you’ve already obtained?”
Goat started to answer, but Nuwell forestalled him.
“There are some things that are none of your business, darling,” he said. “The terrestrial government sent you here on a specific assignment, and I don’t think you should inquire into matters which are classified as secret by the local government, which don’t have anything to do with that assignment. Now, Dr. Hennessey, just what sort of survival qualities have you been able to develop in these experiments?”
“There’s no witchcraft involved,” retorted Goat, with a sardonic grimace.
“I haven’t accused you,” said Nuwell quickly.
“No, but I keep up with events, even out here, well enough to know that you’re the Mars City government’s chief nemesis where there’s any suspicion of extrasensory perception. I doubt that you chose to make this trip yourself without reason, Mr. Eli.”
“It’s merely a routine inspection,” murmured Nuwell.
Goat indicated one of his charts, showing a diagram of genes and chromosomes in different colors.
“This is my original chart,” he said. “I copied it from one belonging to the Martians many years ago, and my genetic alteration of Brute and Adam were based on it. But I must have miscopied it, or else the Martians didn’t have the objective I thought they did in it, because I could find no alteration of genes affecting lung capacity or oxygen utilization. My own subsequent charts, on which later experiments were based, are alterations of this.”
“But just what is your objective, and how well have you succeeded?” persisted Nuwell.
“Ability to survive under Martian conditions.”
“I know. This is stated in all previous inspection reports. I want something more specific.”
“Why, ability to survive in an almost oxygen-free atmosphere, of course. As well as can be determined, the Martians do this by deriving oxygen from surface solids and storing it in their humps under compression, very much like an oxygen tank.
“I’ve succeeded to some degree with my children. All of them can go an hour or two without breathing. What I don’t understand is that no capacities like that were included in the genetic changes on Adam and Brute, and yet they’ve gradually developed an ability to do much better. Both of them were out on the desert the entire day today without oxygen.”
Nuwell was silent for a moment, tapping the tips of his fingers together, apparently in deep thought. Then he said:
“Maya, I think we’ve reached the point where you had better retire to your room and let us to talk privately. You can question Dr. Hennessey in the morning about any attempts the rebels may have made to contact him.”
Maya obeyed silently, rather glad to get away and think things over alone. When she had come to Mars as an agent of the Earth government, it had not occurred to her that there would be areas of information from which the local government would bar her. She recognized that such a prohibition was perfectly valid, but she was a little offended, nevertheless.
Her room was a spacious one on the ground level, and boasted one of Ultra Vires’ few large windows. Maya unpacked her bag, and gratefully stripped off her boots and socks, her tunic and baggy trousers. In underpants, she went into the small bathroom, washed cosmetics from her face and brushed down her thick, short hair.
Donning her light sleeping garment, she sat down on the edge of her bed. She was very tired from the long drive and, almost without thinking, she did not get up to turn out the light. She thought at it.
The switch clicked and the light went out.
She felt foolish and a little frightened. She had never told Nuwell of this sort of thing. Can a woman ask her witch-hunting lover: “Do you think I’m a witch?”
With almost total recall, as though she heard it spoken, she remembered the summation speech Nuwell had made the first time she had seen him in action. He was prosecuting a man charged with conducting experiments similar to the historic and outlawed Rhine experiments of Earth.
“Gentlemen, we sit here in a public building and conduct certain necessary human affairs in a dignified and orderly manner. We follow a way of life we brought with us from distant Earth. Apparently, we are as safe here as we would be on Earth.
“I say ‘apparently.’ Sometimes we forget the thin barriers here that protect us against disaster, against extermination. A rent in this city’s dome, a failure in our oxygen machinery, a clogging of our pumping system by the ever-present sand, and most of us would die before help could reach us from our nearest neighbors.
“We live here under certain restrictions that many of us do not like. Certainly, no one likes to be unable to step out under the open sky without wearing a bulky marsuit and an oxygen tank. Certainly, no one likes to be rationed on water and meat throughout the foreseeable future.
“But what we have to remember is that absolute discipline has always been a requirement for those courageous souls in the vanguard of human progress.
“Witchcraft--the practice of extrasensory perception, if you prefer the term--is forbidden on Mars because to practice it one must differ from his fellow men when the inexorable dangers of our frontier demand that we work together. To practice it, one must devote time and mental effort to untried things when our thin margin of safety makes concentrated and combined effort necessary for survival. That is why witchcraft is forbidden on Mars.
“Let those who yet cling to the wistful liberalism of Earth label us conformists if they will. I say to you that until Mars is won for humanity, we cannot afford the luxury of nonconformity.
“Gentlemen, I give you the prosecution’s case.”
Maya stared out the window. This whole side of Ultra Vires was dark, except for a rectangle of light cast from a window a little distance away--the window of Goat Hennessey’s study. In this rectangle, the red sand of the desert lay clear and stark.
Near the end of the rectangle lay an indistinct, crumpled, oblong figure. Puzzled, Maya studied it. It looked like a body to her.